Monday, December 29, 2008

Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The 1988 Erasmus Lecture

In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, came to New York to deliver the Erasmus Lecture. The title of his lecture was Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, which reflected his long running concern with the state of modern Biblical exegesis. In the lecture he set forth his critique of the current troubled state of affairs--which he attributed to the influence of the “historical-critical method”--and offered his “hopes” for the future. This appears to be as good a starting point as any for a consideration of the issues confronting the Church in developing a coherent theory of revelation, and especially because Ratzinger's views, as expressed in 1988, remain unchanged in their essentials to this day.  We will proceed with a running commentary on Ratzinger's somewhat rambling lecture.

Ratzinger quickly sets the tone for his lecture, opening his remarks with an anecdote from Soloviev that portrays modern exegetes as the Antichrist! He then suggests that “[t]o speak of 'the crisis of the historical-critical method' today is practically a truism.” He professes to find this state of affairs, which is to say, the state of affairs as he has painted it, somehow ironic, since the historical-critical method had “gotten off to so optimistic a start” 100 years ago. True, he adds, the historical-critical method as originally conceived during the Enlightenment contained an “impertinent presupposition” which regarded “dogma or church doctrine ... as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself,” yet Catholic proponents of the historical-critical method assured the Church that the method, once freed of such anti-Christian presuppositions, would provide “strict objectivity” and would bring us closer to “the clear and unmistakable voice of the original message of Jesus.” And, in fact, says Ratzinger, that did initially appear to be the case.

This manner of framing the subject is certainly noteworthy, implying as it does that the historical-critical method is part of an illusory quest for “strict objectivity.” From a philosophical standpoint this formulation clearly implies that Ratzinger falls well within the common Platonic tradition when it comes to the the problem of knowledge. For Platonists (of whatever stripe) knowledge is an all or nothing proposition. Either we attain to a complete grasp of the Ideas (the heavenly archetypes of Mircea Eliade's “archaic ontology”) or ... we have no real knowledge at all! Godlike omniscience or total skepticism, the Scylla and Charybdis that has bedeviled man for millennia. Ratzinger is situating the entire project of historical-critical exegesis within the context of this wrongheaded epistemology.

So, then, what followed from the historical-critical method's optimistic beginnings? Ratzinger first complains that the historical-critical method led to a “confused” picture--use of the method gave rise to a number of apparently conflicting theories. The existence of contradictory theories, says Ratzinger, meant that “access to the Bible” was blocked for all those who were not “initiated” into the complexities of the method (note once again the use of a loaded, pejorative term: “initiated,” with its hint of a gnostic fraternity of illuminati). Furthermore, says Ratzinger, those who were “initiated,” the scholars and exegetes, “were no longer reading the Bible anyway, but were dissecting it into the various parts from which it had to have been composed.” (My emphasis.) In other words, Ratzinger suggests that these exegetes were impious men who ignored what “the Bible” was actually saying, in favor of arcane academic game playing that blocked the simple faithful from access to the clear meaning of the text.

It's clear that Ratzinger disapproves of this situation, but he is less than totally forthcoming about his exact reasoning. For example, he appears to be saying that the “uninitiated,” the simple faithful, should have full “access” to “the Bible.” How reasonable is this contention? There are at least two presuppositions behind this complaint, and probably more.

The first presupposition is that it is reasonable to expect the “uninitiated” (by which term I assume Ratzinger means persons who have not received education in scriptural exegesis) to be able to pick up a book that is a collection of writings that were written at least two millennia ago in languages that are now imperfectly grasped, in the contexts of several very different cultures, and be able to deal adequately with the complex issues that are presented. There was a time when the Catholic Church discouraged private interpretation of “the Bible” by the untrained; here, it almost sounds as if Ratzinger is recommending a fundamentally Protestant approach--private interpretation for the masses, regardless of preparation!

A second presupposition appears to be that the writings contained in “the Bible” were inspired by God as a fund of inspirational books for the benefit of pious Christians, who will read them without regard to the human intent of the authors and will likely impose figurative or moralizing meanings upon the text without regard to the “literal” meaning (which must take into account complex cultural, historical and linguistic considerations, at a minimum). Once again, this presupposition has a generally Protestant tone to it: Christians are considered to be “people of the book” in a sense that the Catholic Church has never adopted. Private “Bible study” is the route to growing in faith, in this view.

To address first the impression of “confusion” that Ratzinger complains of, one might reasonably ask: Where has the Church been for the last two millenia, while theologians ran riot with far fetched allegorical and typological exegesis, which required just as arcane an initiatory experience as historical-critical exegesis (often inspired by a Platonic influence that is antithetical to Christian inspiration)? Moreover, in the initial stages of a new scientific enterprise it is not at all unusual for a large number of conflicting hypotheses to be advanced. This may cause a certain amount of confusion, but experience shows that it can be controlled if addressed judiciously. What we have seen in the history of modern exegesis is what might have been expected: most of the more extreme hypotheses--often advanced with great confidence and an anti-Christian bias--have in the course of the last 50 years been thoroughly debunked. The mainstream of scholarship has grown ever closer to more traditional understandings of scripture or, in any event, understandings that are in accord with what a reasonably educated person would expect.

And in fairness, if the Church has been remiss in failing to foster historical-critical studies, it is not because first class Christian scholars have been unaware of the need, and of the problems that arise from ignoring such studies. For example, in The Jewish People And Their Sacred Scriptures In The Christian Bible (issued by The Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2001 under the auspices of Ratzinger as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), we read the following summary of official Catholic teaching--along with an expression of Ratzinger's continuing concerns:

4. Return to the Literal Sense 
Thomas Aquinas saw clearly what underpinned allegorical exegesis: the commentator can only discover in a text what he already knows, and in order to know it, he had to find it in the literal sense of another text. From this Thomas Aquinas drew the conclusion: a valid argument cannot be constructed from the allegorical sense, it can only be done from the literal sense.40
Starting from the Middle Ages, the literal sense has been restored to a place of honour and has not ceased to prove its value. The critical study of the Old Testament has progressed steadily in that direction culminating in the supremacy of the historical-critical method. 
And so an inverse process was set in motion: the relation between the Old Testament and Christian realities was now restricted to a limited number of Old Testament texts. Today, there is the danger of going to the opposite extreme of denying outright, together with the excesses of the allegorical method, all Patristic exegesis and the very idea of a Christian and Christological reading of Old Testament texts. This gave rise in contemporary theology, without as yet any consensus, to different ways of re-establishing a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament that would avoid arbitrariness and respect the original meaning.

Thus, we see that a clear formulation of the general principles of exegesis was presented by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (but with roots going back to certain Patristic traditions): until the literal sense can be determined, no allegorical/typological meanings should be based on any given text. However, Ratzinger, with his well known animus toward Thomist thought (or, as he chooses to anachronistically term it, “scholastic” thought), expresses his concern: will not the use of the historical-critical method lead to an outright denial of any connection between the “Old” and the “New” Testaments, since historical-critical studies have shown that the Israelite writers did not write with the New Testament in mind? This concern of Ratzinger's clearly raises issues that are central to any theory of revelation. Ratzinger acknowledges, as he must, the validity of the historical-critical method, the imperative for exegesis to “avoid arbitrariness and respect the original meaning,” but he points out that there is “as yet [no] consensus” regarding a “Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.” This is the root of Ratzinger's repeatedly expressed concerns about a “Neo-Marcionism.” Thus the impression arises that, while Ratzinger speaks of “different ways of re-establishing a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament,” he doubts that the historical-critical method can actually lead to re-establishing a solidly based Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. What we will need to explore is the question, Is this perceived difficulty truly inherent in the historical-critical method or does it result from a failure of imagination on Ratzinger's part or even from inadequacies in his philosophical background?

These concerns--and the difficulty that Ratzinger has in reconciling them with long established Catholic teaching on the priority of the “literal meaning” of the text--are behind the confusions that Ratzinger continually introduces into his lecture. Ratzinger initially spoke of Christian exegetes adopting the historical-critical method in the hope of coming closer to the “original voice” of Jesus. From this one might infer that Ratzinger is referring primarily to study of the Gospels--the “dissection” he disapproves of would then involve the search for the sources of the Gospel narratives. But as he proceeds he redirects his words to “the entire biblical account of history.” Now that's a very different matter. Prescinding entirely from the question of whether--and in what sense and to what extent--“the Bible” purports to be an “account of history,” we must ask, Is Ratzinger suggesting that the Pentateuch is an “account of history” in the same sense that the Gospels are? Is the analysis of the Pentateuch into several narrative and theological sources strictly comparable with the source criticism that has been applied to the Gospels? (At the end of this post we will see that there is reason to believe that Ratzinger is, in fact, focused on the Pentateuch when he speaks of “the entire biblical account of history.”) Certainly “God and divine action permeate” the Pentateuch, but is it true to say that such permeation extends to the NT, the letters as well as the Gospels, in a strictly comparable way? Ratzinger does not divulge his views on these issues, but the end of it all, according to Ratzinger, is “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.” But can a method that leads to “a jungle of contradictions” be called a method at all? Where is Ratzinger's thought leading--to a renunciation of scientific study of “the Bible”? Is he suggesting that there were no problems with more traditional approaches to scripture?

A Catholic might well ask: How fair is Ratzinger's assessment of the historical-critical method? Is the historical-critical method really “such a radical approach”? After all, given that God has intervened in history as a man who lived the life and died the death of a man, and whose followers wrote reflections on that life and death (and resurrection) as well as discussions and instructions regarding the meaning of that life, death and resurrection for the fledgling Christian Church, is it “radical” to seek reliable historical knowledge regarding these events? May it not, rather, be a normal and laudatory use of man's God-given intellectual faculties? Indeed, is it even possible to “learn[] what the text says” without conducting historical-critical research? The Church, following Thomas Aquinas, has given its full support to historical studies of this sort, yet doubts regarding the method itself seem to be at the heart of Ratzinger's complaints:

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. 

These are extraordinary assertions! Is Ratzinger really suggesting that the historical-critical method must, by its very nature, dismiss all talk of God as “irrational residue”? Surely the many Catholic practitioners of this method would take exception to Ratzinger's claim. And in what sense should “faith” be “a component of this method”? For Catholics, faith is reasonable belief, and Christian faith arises as man's response to events in history. Did not the first disciples face an historical-critical problem from the very moment that the empty tomb was discovered, and from the very moment of the post resurrection appearances? Were not the disciples, in effect, the first historical-critical scholars? Yet Ratzinger seems to want to put the cart before the horse, so to speak, and make “faith” (whatever he may mean by this word) a prior condition to inquiry into the events that gave rise to faith! Would not this attitude logically require that the work of scholars who lack the requisite faith be dismissed out of hand? And then there is the complex question of determining which positions are truly de fide and which are theological explanations or even speculation, hallowed by tradition perhaps, but not essential doctrine. Confusion in these matters is hardly the sole province of the historical-critical method, nor did Jesus ever promise that the life of faith would be an easy way!

That contradictory hypotheses should arise in the course of historical inquiry is no doubt unfortunate, but it is also no more than is to be expected, given that human researchers have varying abilities and--not infrequently--varying motives. This state of affairs is called the human condition, and there is no escape from it for human beings, not even for the Church. For Catholics, who uphold the ability of man to conduct rational inquiry into God's creation--which includes “the Bible”--the proper response to human fallibility cannot lie in a retreat into fideism; it can only lie in searching criticism of the methods and results of historical research. Surely this is a laudable undertaking that has long been recognized by the Church as basic for exegesis, and it deserves the forthright support of the Church. After all, the Church has from its inception recognized the difficulties inherent in the very notion of “Scripture,” as when Peter cautioned that Paul's letters contain difficult matter which some distort and misunderstand (2 Peter 3:15-16). We can hardly expect to be able to avoid historical-critical issues when dealing with texts that arose in and exist in history. Unfortunately, as we will have occasion to note at several points, Ratzinger is far from consistent in his criticisms of the historical-critical method. His method appears to be one of raising doubts, but moving on without resolving them--what could be called, casting aspersions.

Having stated his view of the “crisis” brought on by the historical-critical method, Ratzinger turns to a description of the reaction, or “counterreaction,” to that crisis: “cautious systematic theologians ... began the search for a theology which was as independent as possible from exegesis. But what possible value can a theology have which is cut off from its own foundations?” In Ratzinger's view, this dilemma--the perceived uncertainty of historical-critical scholarship's results, which thus undercut systematic theology--was what led to the rise of another “radical approach”: fundamentalism. Now, Ratzinger grants this much to fundamentalism: it takes as its “precedent the position of the Bible itself, which has selected as its own hermeneutical perspective the viewpoint of the 'little ones,' the 'pure of heart.'” Nevertheless, Ratzinger is well aware of the conundrums that face fundamentalism:

They want to take the Bible again in its literal purity, just as it stands and just as the average reader understands it to be. But when do I really take the Bible “literally”? And which is the “normative” understanding which holds for the Bible in all its particularity? 

What should certainly trouble any thinking Christian is Ratzinger's notion that “the Bible itself” presents any “hermeneutical perspective.” And yet his claim is that the “hermeneutical perspective” of “the Bible itself” is “the viewpoint of the 'little ones,' the 'pure of heart'!” Ratzinger's position appears to be this: historical-critical scholars should avoid saying anything that would disturb the faith of the “little ones,” the “pure of heart.” If historical-critical scholars had exercised more restraint, radical fundamentalism would never have been a problem. Leaving aside the question whether Jesus presented this caution regarding scandal as an actual “hermeneutical perspective,” the difficulty in implementing it should be immediately apparent. How is the scholar to determine what the faith of the “little ones,” the “pure of heart” actually is, and is he to assume that this faith is the faith of the Church rather than, as has happened all too often, a witches' brew of superstition and misconception that deserves to be challenged? Certainly if the operative hermeneutical principle is to avoid upsetting “little ones,” the “pure of heart,” one might well doubt whether The Revelation to John, the Letter to the Hebrews or Paul's letters to the Galatians, Corinthians and Romans would ever have been written! Jesus himself was certainly not reluctant to challenge authority, nor to encourage his disciples to do so, and we know that this was upsetting to many Jews. Finally, there is the question of how we are to approve scholars who delve into these matters--are we to rate the subjective strength of their faith, or simply have them sign some statement of faith?

Once again, Ratzinger's complaint raises more problems than it solves, yet without confronting these problems he passes quickly on to conclude his presentation of “the crisis” with this:

But how is it possible to come to an understanding which on one hand is not based on some arbitrary choice of particular aspects, but on the other hand allows me to hear the message of the text and not something coming from my own self? Once the methodology has picked history to death by its dissection, who can reawaken it so that it can live and speak to me? Let me put it another way: if “hermeneutics” is ever to become convincing, the inner harmony between historical analysis and hermeneutical synthesis must first be found. 

Who can fail to detect the disapproval of the historical-critical method in Ratzinger's words? And yet if God entered history in Jesus, rather than in a book, is there no value for faith in “pick[ing] history to death”? Ratzinger is concerned that “the message of the text” should speak to “the world of today,” and to this there are (at least) two possible responses. One is that there are, in fact, many historical-critical scholars who labor precisely to integrate the findings of historical research into the life of the Church and into an overarching theological perspective. A second response is that the presumption of faith should be that, if God entered history in Jesus, that event should speak to the world of every age. It is precisely the historical research, which establishes the original intent of the text, that makes possible the responsible application of scripture to modern conditions!

But Ratzinger presses on without a backward glance, voicing yet another concern. It is possible, he says, for the results of the historical-critical method to be misused, as by Marxism and radical feminism: “historical method can even serve as a cloak for such maneuvers insofar as it dissects the Bible into discontinuous pieces, which are then able to be put to new use and inserted into a new montage (altogether different from the original biblical context).”

What is one to say to this? As I've already said, this is the human condition. There is no avoiding this dilemma; Paul exhorts us to fight the good fight, and so we must. If modern ideologies are misusing “the Bible,” historical-critical research will bring this to light. To repeat, Peter himself complained of the misuse of Paul's letters, Paul complained of factionalism in Corinth and a false gospel in Galatia, John complained of heretics. Challenges to faith are not the fault of the historical-critical method as such, even if it may sometimes be misused, as Ratzinger says, “as a cloak for such maneuvers.” The answer cannot be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What does Ratzinger want to do about this, beyond encouraging diligent and responsible scholarship to make the truth known? He begins by addressing what he calls The Central Problem.

First, Ratzinger admits that, in what came before, he has overdrawn the crisis. Indeed, one might very well conclude from his words that the scientific model of self criticism and correction is working as it should as regards the historical-critical study of the Bible. One might even ask, where is the crisis?

The methods are often applied with a good deal of prudence, and the radical hermeneutics of the kind I have just described have already been disavowed by a large number of exegetes. In addition, the search for remedies for basic errors of modern methods has been going on for some time now. The scholarly search to find a better synthesis between the historical and theological methods, between higher criticism and church doctrine, is hardly a recent phenomenon. 

Nevertheless, Ratzinger, as expected, places most of the onus on the historical-critical method. This can be seen from the fact that hardly anyone today would assert that a truly pervasive understanding of this whole problem has yet been found which takes into account both the undeniable insights uncovered by the historical method, while at the same time overcoming its limitations and disclosing them in a thoroughly relevant hermeneutic. While acknowledging “the undeniable insights uncovered by the historical method,” who can doubt that Ratzinger sees the method as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, since he quickly refers to the need to “overcom[e] its limitations and disclos[e] them in a thoroughly relevant hermeneutic.” Of possible problems in theology itself, as well as in philosophy, we hear not a word. For Ratzinger, the key to resolving this sorry state of affairs lies in “[w]hat ... might be called a criticism of criticism,” and the beginning of wisdom, as regards historical-critical method, is a “diachronic” approach within a “self-critique of historical method.” By this Ratzinger means that we should examine the use of the historical-critical method itself from an historical perspective (“diachronic -- of, relating to, or dealing with phenomena [as of language or culture] as they occur or change over a period of time.").

Now, it is a safe assumption that the scholars to whom Ratzinger referred in his “admission” have already applied a diachronic analysis. Nevertheless, let us follow Ratzinger's critique of criticism and ask, What will a diachronic approach accomplish? It will, Ratzinger is confident, deprive the historical-critical method of its “appearance of a quasi-clinical-scientific certainty.” This is important, he says, because “this appearance of certainty ... has caused its conclusions to be accepted ... far and wide.” Taking the most judicious reading of what Ratzinger is saying, he clearly wants to inculcate a healthy skepticism regarding the ability of “historical reason” to arrive at scientific certainty. From a philosophical point of view, Ratzinger is playing with fire, for there is no way to prevent pious followers from applying this skepticism to all aspects of human knowledge.

However, this observation is still a preliminary step. Leaving aside Ratzinger's misunderstanding of Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty and his attempt to apply it to historical research, Ratzinger enunciates what is for him a fundamental principle: “Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It is not the uninvolved who comes to knowledge; rather, interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.” Thus, he concludes, the key to a healthy exegesis is to develop what could be called a “sympathy” for the subject matter so as to minimize to the extent possible the distorting factor of the observer's point of view--so that we will listen to the voice of the facts rather than to the voice of our desire. Obviously, for Ratzinger, this has not been the spirit in which the historical-critical method has been applied. A diachronic review of the results reveals that progress has been neither constant nor unidirectional and the results have been contaminated by ideological presuppositions which do violence to the facts and “the spirit of times long ago.” Nevertheless, Ratzinger cautions, “This insight should not lead us to skepticism about the method, but rather to an honest recognition of what its limits are, and perhaps how it might be purified.”

Now, up to this point, Ratzinger has been consistently portraying the crisis of “Biblical Interpretation” as one that was caused by the historical-critical method. Yet to suggest, as a remedy for this “crisis,” no more than a reflective critique of one's methods and results and a constant effort to develop a sympathetic understanding for “the spirit of times long ago” hardly seems to be the repudiation of the method itself that he had hinted at. And, as Ratzinger proceeds to provide a “case study” of the thought of Dibelius and Bultmann, he demonstrates that the difficulties that they involved themselves in arose precisely from their reliance upon the thought of ideologues such as Martin Heidegger, rather than from any legitimate use of the historical-critical method itself. From these observations Ratzinger proceeds to a critique of what he calls The Philosophic Source of the Method.

Ratzinger traces the roots of the problem back to the thought of Immanuel Kant, with its refusal to allow man contact with “being in itself.” (This is, as we have noted in prior posts, a blind spot for Ratzinger. He refuses to consider what serious scholars have long recognized: that Kant is merely the culmination and logical working out of the Augustinian tradition. The roots of the modern crisis must be sought in that direction and, to the extent that Ratzinger refuses to conduct that inquiry, to that extent his analysis is seriously flawed.) The core of Ratzinger's critique of Kant is that, according to Kant, man cannot consider anything that lies beyond the "categories" of phenomenal experience. What Ratzinger seizes on here is that Kant's position “excludes the appearance of what is 'wholly other,' or the one who is wholly other, or a new initiative from another plane.” That is to say, Kant excludes God except as a postulate of practical reason.

For Ratzinger this is the key to his critique of the historical-critical method--or, at least, of the straw man that he has labeled “the historical-critical method.” It is an historical fact that the first practitioners of an historical-critical approach to “the Bible” were heavily influenced by Kantian thought, which excludes God except as a postulate. Given this historical background, Ratzinger poses the fundamental question: “The real question before us then is, can one read the Bible any other way? Or perhaps better, must one agree with the philosophy which requires this kind of reading? At its core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among historians: it is rather a philosophical debate.”

Now, Ratzinger is undoubtedly correct that any theoretical issues involved in the practice of the historical-critical method are fundamentally philosophical in nature and not historical at all. In fact, he could have saved a lot of time by cutting to the chase at the outset of his lecture and shortening his rambling complaints against the historical-critical method. Given, then, that what Ratzinger billed as “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis” is actually something more like “Philosophy in Crisis,” we might well wonder: exactly what will Ratzinger propose as an antidote to Kant? Will he propose something in the nature of N. T. Wright's “critical realist” hermeneutic, based on “Neo-Thomist” thought?

Having identified the problem as a fundamentally philosophical problem, Ratzinger shifts to what he calls “the positive side of the problem”: How can we find “a better philosophy” that will not lead the historical method astray “and which would offer greater possibilities for a true listening to the text itself”? Here, we might expect, is finally the place for Ratzinger to appeal to Thomist thought, with its advanced epistemology, but if that were our expectation (and it is not, based on Ratzinger's antagonism toward what he chooses to call “scholasticism”), we would be sorely disappointed. Instead, at the outset of his supposed philosophical considerations, Ratzinger warns us that the “positive task is without a doubt even more difficult than the critical one” that he has just completed--as if to warn us not to expect much. Unfortunately, having lowered the bar in this manner, Ratzinger nevertheless proceeds to stumble over it.

Ratzinger spoke of finding “a better philosophy,” but his only subsequent reference to this idea, incredibly, is to caution that “the exegete should not approach the text with a ready-made philosophy, nor in accordance with the dictates of a so-called modern or 'scientific' worldview, which determines in advance what may or may not be.” This statement is in itself reflective of a philosophic position--one which both rules out any coherent philosophy as well as a scientific approach. Obviously, this amounts to a sort of skepticism--a remarkable position for a Pope to adopt--for which Ratzinger offers no justification whatsoever. Instead, his preparatory remarks largely repeat his complaints against his construct of the historical-critical method. Nevertheless, after these preliminary remarks, he begins to edge toward what will be his final position. Not surprisingly, rather than turning to Aquinas Ratzinger appeals to the example of Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), a Patristic darling of the Nouvelle Théologie that Ratzinger grew up with:

In the midst of the theological, methodological debate of his day, Gregory of Nyssa called upon the rationalist Eunomius not to confuse theology with the science of nature. (Theologein is not physiologein.) “The mystery of theology is one thing,” he said, “the scientific investigation of nature is quite another.” One cannot then “encompass the unembraceable nature of God in the palm of a child’s hand.”

On this Ratzinger comments:

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. 

Where to begin? “Modern exegesis,” Ratzinger's catch-all, does not relegate God to “the incomprehensible, the otherworldly, and the inexpressible”--that was done by Kantian thought, as Ratzinger himself conceded. Just as bad, Ratzinger nowhere explains: 1) why treating the biblical text as “an entirely worldly reality” is a bad thing, nor 2) how treating the biblical text as other than “an entirely worldly reality” could lead to greater understanding of the same text. Further, why is Ratzinger concerned about this, since he himself admits that the process of self correction is well under way among scholars who engage in historical-critical studies and that the tendentious exegesis of Dibelius and Bultmann was a result not of the historical-critical method itself but of ideological or “philosophical” presuppositions based on the thought of Kant and Heidegger?

Nor can we ignore Ratzinger's use of the example of Gregory of Nyssa--it is hardly an apt comparison for the present day. For one thing, the “science of nature” in the 4th century was quite a different thing from the science of nature in the 20th century; Ratzinger's suggestion of an equivalence of the two is dismaying. For another, it is certainly not clear how a worldly creature (man) is to treat a text that is not, according to Ratzinger, “an entirely worldly reality.” Equally relevant, the social sciences that have been brought to bear upon Biblical study in the last several centuries, barely existed--if exist they did at all--in the 4th century: linguistics, archeology, sociology, anthropology, comparative literature, comparative religion, history. Moreover, is the scientific study of the text of the bible truly equivalent to attempting to “encompass the unembraceable nature of God in the palm of a child’s hand?” Likewise, while Ratzinger rejects treatment of “the biblical text itself as an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods,” at other points (as we shall see) he accepts--even requires--this approach as a valid first step!

What is Ratzinger getting at? He is approaching the point at which he'll have to lay all his cards on the table, but before he does so he once again denies that historical-critical studies have “an exactness and certitude similar to natural science.” The claim to such certitude is, he states, “a false claim because it is based upon a misunderstanding of the depth and dynamism of the word.” This, of course, is a red herring. Few, if any, historical-critical scholars would claim such certitude for their studies; on the other hand, modern science has also undergone significant “paradigm shifts.” The fact that human knowledge is not infallible does not mean that human knowledge is never valid, nor does it mean that we should give up the search to expand and deepen our knowledge. Human fallibility in all fields and in all walks of life is simply the condition--the human condition--of our finite natures which God created. There is no escape from our responsibility to use our finite natures to the best of our ability.

How, then, would Ratzinger have us approach the study of scripture? Ratzinger turns again to Gregory of Nyssa, stating that Gregory's “sublime thought” is “a true guidepost today: 'these gliding and glittering lights of God’s word which sparkle over the eyes of the soul . . . but now let what we hear from Elijah rise up to our soul and would that our thoughts, too, might be snatched up into the fiery chariot . . . so we would not have to abandon hope of drawing close to these stars, by which I mean the thoughts of God . . .'” Exactly how are these words a “true guidepost for today”? All Ratzinger will offer at this point is this:

Thus the word should not be submitted to just any kind of enthusiasm. Rather, preparation is required to open us up to the inner dynamism of the word. This is possible only when there is a certain “sympathia” for understanding, a readiness to learn something new, to allow oneself to be taken along a new road. . . . 

Exactly what this sympathia is is not yet clear. Ratzinger offers only generalities, rather than the “better philosophy” he promised:

... the exegete should not approach the text with a ready-made philosophy, ... He may not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human history, ... He may not deny to humanity the ability to be responsive beyond the categories of pure reason and to reach beyond ourselves toward the open and endless truth of being. 

At this point Ratzinger lapses into almost cryptic statements. To simplify, Ratzinger's aims are twofold. First, as we have seen, he is concerned to reject the Kantianism that he sees in “Dibelius, Bultmann, and the mainstream of modern exegesis”--that is, all those exegetes who refuse to admit God as an element of their exegesis, who claim to follow the scientific method. Ratzinger sees the historical-critical method as compromised by Kantian thought but, significantly, he avoids challenging the philosophical basis of Kantian thought. Instead, he continues to denigrate “modern exegesis.” Thus, while forced to admit the legitimacy of the historical-critical method, he seeks, as a tactic, to challenge at every turn its supposed claims to absolute certitude. At the same time, and for reasons that will become clear later, Ratzinger is also concerned to strongly insist upon the unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Nevertheless, despite the frustratingly opaque manner in which he proceeds, we are getting close to Ratzinger's “methodology.” In the very next paragraph he begins with what seems to be yet another concession to the necessity of the historical-critical method, but ends with a call for a faith based exegesis:

Certainly texts must first of all be traced back to their historical origins and interpreted in their proper historical context. But then, in a second exegetical operation, one must look at them also in light of the total movement of history and in light of history’s central event, Jesus Christ. Only the combination of both these methods will yield understanding of the Bible. If the first exegetical operation by the Fathers and in the Middle Ages is found to be lacking, so too is the second, since it easily falls into arbitrariness. Thus, the first was fruitless, but the rejection of any coherence of meaning leads to an opinionated methodology. 

What Ratzinger is saying behind this convoluted language is something like this: Historical research is absolutely necessary for a modern exegesis. Now, it's perfectly true that the exegesis of the Fathers and of the Middle Ages was sorely lacking in that respect, and as a result their search for analogies and typology--their search for a unity between the Old and New Testaments--easily descended into arbitrary speculation. But, nevertheless, Kantian influenced exegesis is also seriously flawed, for by denying man access to “being in itself,” that is, by restricting exegesis to a study of man's response to words and denying significance to events as such, this exegesis excludes the possibility of the actual "Christ event" serving as a unifying principle between the Old and New Testaments. The reason this is so is left unspoken, however it is this: historical-critical research has established that the Old Testament, understood on its own terms, does not contain references to Jesus.  Instead of addressing these findings squarely, Ratzinger prefers to lay the blame on Kantian presuppositions--ignoring the fact that mainstream exegesis is no longer dependent on Kantian thought.  Thus, he contends, correctly enough, that any Kantian based exegesis restricts exegesis from considering actual events as meaningful, and in this way strikes at the unity of the Old and New Testaments, since this Kantian based exegesis considers only man's response to the “word” or “proclamation.”

Unfortunately, what Ratzinger fails to explain is this: if the texts of the Israelite scriptures contain no references to Jesus, how can we now say that those same texts somehow pertain to “history’s central event, Jesus Christ,” just because Jesus was an “event?” My contention is that the solution to this difficulty lies in a reconsideration of the “model” of revelation that Ratzinger takes for granted, namely, that the Israelite scriptures are an enormous repository of coded messages, allegories and “typologies,” which exegetes are to unpack. In place of this model, I suggest that the Israelite scriptures are a record of how a people, Israel, came to be through history a suitable vehicle for God's self revelation in Jesus. The texts can only be understood through the methods associated with historical-critical scholarship, including methods associated with non-verbal, event driven records, such as archaeology. My further contention is that a close study of the way in which Jesus, in his own voice in the Gospels, makes use of the Israelite scriptures will support this alternative model of revelation.

Ratzinger himself is obviously aware of the type of objections (such as mine, above) that his “methodology” will provoke, and finally he must explain himself. After once again deploring the “great errors” of the historical-critical method, Ratzinger offers five “hopes” as a conclusion:

(a) The time seems to have arrived for a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method. Scientific exegesis must recognize the philosophic element present in a great number of its ground rules, and it must then reconsider the results which are based on these rules. 
(b) Exegesis can no longer be studied in a unilinear, synchronic fashion, as is the case with scientific findings which do not depend upon their history but only upon the precision of their data. Exegesis must recognize itself as a historical discipline. Its history belongs to itself. In a critical arrangement of its respective positions within the totality of its own history, it will be able, on one hand, to recognize the relativity of its own judgments (where, for example, errors may have crept in). On the other hand, it will be in a better position to achieve an insight into our real, if always imperfect, comprehension of the biblical word. 
(c) Philological and scientific literary methods are and will remain critically important for a proper exegesis. But for their actual application to the work of criticism–just as for an examination of their claims–an understanding of the philosophic implications of the interpretative process is required. The self-critical study of its own history must also imply an examination of the essential philosophic alternatives for human thought. Thus, it is not sufficient to scan simply the last one hundred and fifty years. The great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion. It is equally indispensable to reflect on the fundamental judgments made by the Reformers and the critical importance they have had in the history of exegesis. 
(d) What we need now are not new hypotheses on the Sitz im Leben, on possible sources or on the subsequent process of handing down the material. What we do need is a critical look at the exegetical landscape we now have, so that we may return to the text and distinguish between those hypotheses which are helpful and those which are not. Only under these conditions can a new and fruitful collaboration between exegesis and systematic theology begin. And only in this way will exegesis be of real help in understanding the Bible. 
(e) Finally, the exegete must realize that he does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside history and the church. Such a presumed immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends. The first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible as a book. In so doing, it has already chosen a place for itself which does not simply follow from the study of literature. It has identified this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and this history as the proper space for coming to understanding. If it wishes to be theology, it must take a further step. It must recognize that the faith of the church is that form of sympathia without which the Bible remains a closed book. It must come to acknowledge this faith as a hermeneutic, the space for understanding, which does not do dogmatic violence to the Bible, but precisely allows the solitary possibility for the Bible to be itself. 

To the extent that Ratzinger has valid points to offer in the first four “hopes,” he has already conceded that they are being implemented by scholars:

The methods are often applied with a good deal of prudence, and the radical hermeneutics of the kind I have just described have already been disavowed by a large number of exegetes. In addition, the search for remedies for basic errors of modern methods has been going on for some time now. The scholarly search to find a better synthesis between the historical and theological methods, between higher criticism and church doctrine, is hardly a recent phenomenon. 

Perhaps the most original suggestion in these first four “hopes” is his admonition to pay heed to the philosophical component in the exegetical undertaking. From my standpoint, the most hopeful prospect for overcoming the philosophical impediments to sound exegetical methodology can be found in N. T. Wright's “critical realist” hermeneutic, as set forth in his The New Testament and the People of God (1992), published four years after Ratzinger's Erasmus Lecture. Ratzinger, of course, due to his well known antipathy for what he calls “scholasticism,” is not disposed to endorse a Thomist approach in general, although he does acknowledge that Aquinas' principles of exegesis--the priority of the literal meaning of the text as established by critical study--is controlling for the Church. Thus, he has no truly positive suggestion to make: he is willing to say what conclusions a “better philosophy" must support, but he is unable to offer any guidance regarding what the principles of such a “better philosophy” would be.

This being the case, however, why doesn't Ratzinger just give the “large number of exegetes” a pat on the back, exhort them to keep up the good work and move on? The answer lies in the fifth “hope,” and in the nature of the preoccupations that Ratzinger just can't let go of. In the fifth “hope” Ratzinger enunciates the principles of his preferred methodology. And it is troubling that he identifies the first principle as being, in fact, a “presupposition,” rather than a true principle: “The first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible as a book.” Now this assertion is in fact a matter of considerable debate within the the field of Biblical Interpretation: is “the Bible” a true literary unity or is it a canonical unity? Behind this question is the further question, which Ratzinger has never addressed forthrightly: what does it mean to say that “the Bible” is “revealed”? What exactly is being revealed by “the Bible”? Ratzinger clearly wishes to short circuit these issues in favor of his preferred mode of exegesis, which centers upon allegory and Christological typology, rather than historical study. This, I believe, explains his extended and often tendentious attacks on the historical-critical method, a method which he is, after all, constrained by authoritative Church documents to recognize as essential.

The second principle finally reveals to us what Ratzinger meant when he earlier referred to “sympathia.” This “sympathia” is “the faith of the Church.” Now, for the exegete who has come to faith--that is, reasonable belief based on the historical reality of Jesus--the faith of the Church will, indeed, serve as a guide and a control. To this extent Ratzinger's view is unobjectionable. Nevertheless, this criterion of the faith is not quite as clear cut as Ratzinger obviously hopes it will prove to be. For starters, how does he propose to certify theologians as informed by “sympathia?” Moreover, no one knows better than Ratzinger that it is not always easy to know the mind of the Church. Likewise, it can be as easy to mistake one's own dispositions and predilections for the true mind of the Church as it is to to mistake any other personal preference for reality.

The question arises: why does Ratzinger offer these two principles in one “hope”? Why does he not separate each principle out into a separate “hope”? The answer to these questions suggests a context for Ratzinger's concerns that goes a long way toward an understanding of his thought with regard to Scripture. The answer lies in comparing this lecture to the later document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002). The reasoning of both Ratzinger's lecture and of The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible correlate point for point. This is no accident, since Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which supervises the Pontifical Biblical Commission) and wrote the preface to The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.

For Ratzinger the two principles of “the Bible as a book” and “sympathia” as “the faith of the Church” are intimately and necessarily connected. Briefly, Ratzinger is concerned to maintain the unity of the Old and New Testaments because he sees in the tendency of historical-critical studies toward “discontinuity” a threat of a new Marcionism: the danger of a Christian rejection of the Old Testament altogether. It has been clear throughout this analysis of his lecture that Ratzinger's responses to, criticisms of and arguments against the historical-critical method are weak and conclusory--not to mention, contradictory. On the one hand Ratzinger has criticized the method by hinting that deformations of exegesis such as the thought of Dibelius and Bultmann are brought about by the very nature of the method, yet on the other hand he has conceded that his own portrayal of the method is tendentious and that modern scholars are remedying the ideologically induced abuses of the method--abuses that do not arise from the nature of the method itself. On the one hand he suggests that a “better philosophy” will exorcise the historical-critical method of its Kantian demons, yet on still another hand he offers no concrete philosophical guidance whatsoever.

But the danger of a new Marcionism is different than the original Marcionism, in that modern exegesis is based on the historical-critical method. Now Ratzinger asserts, although without argumentation, that the historical-critical method “can only lead to dead ends.” This is no doubt surprising to the many people who have been enlightened and edified by the historical-critical method, but there is an inner logic to Ratzinger's thought that is not fully displayed in this lecture. For Ratzinger, the “first presupposition of all exegesis”--of “the Bible as a book”--contains a further, implicit presupposition: and this implicit presupposition “does not simply follow from the study of literature.” Exegesis, by accepting this first presupposition, has “identified this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and this history as the proper space for coming to understanding.” And it is based on this historical nature of “the Bible as a book” that the Church's theological interpretation of Scripture is based: allegorical and typological interpretations of the Old Testament. By calling into question the historicity of much of the Pentateuch--which contain so much of the typological material used by the Fathers--the historical-critical method strikes at the heart of Christian theology--in Ratzinger's view. It is for this reason that Ratzinger asserts that the historical-critical method “can only lead to dead ends”: unless the exegete simply accepts--contrary to the evidence of the historical-critical method--the historicity of “the entire biblical account of history,” Christological typology will be no more than idle speculation with no solid basis.

This is where “the faith of the Church” becomes so important for Ratzinger. For Ratzinger, if exegesis, including Christological typology, is conducted simply at the discretion of the individual exegete, it will be arbitrary: there will be no controlling factor to ensure that the exegete is truly possessed of a “sympathia” for events of so long ago. “The faith of the Church,” says Ratzinger, is precisely that controlling factor that will guide the individual exegete in finding all those typological parallels that connect the Old to the New Testament. The historical-critical method, according to Ratzinger, is incapable of this because it refuses to include God and faith as part of its hermeneutic.

And here we reach the paradoxical core of Ratzinger's thought. Recall that he began by blaming Kant's thought for the current crisis in “Biblical” interpretation. Now, Kant famously--and quite correctly--characterized his own thought in the following statement: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to leave room for faith.” Thus, Kant subjected modern science (or so he thought) to his “categories” of the mind. But now Ratzinger himself, having decried the influence of Kant but utterly failed to offer any philosophical alternative, has revealed that his goal is essentially identical: to deny knowledge (the historical-critical method) in order to leave room for faith!

Of course, given that Ratzinger is a human person, we cannot expect complete consistency in his expression of his thought. It is important to remember that, while his exact expressions may shift and vary at times, Ratzinger, under the influence of his Catholic upbringing and education, cannot see “faith” as an irrational impulse or postulate--however much his thought may clearly trend in that direction. Unfortunately, Ratzinger is clearly unable to conceptualize any other justification for the Christian faith--he actually appears to believe that without the construct of “retrospective” faith-based typology the Christian faith would be destroyed. I believe otherwise, and I believe the key to resolving this issue lies in an analysis of what “revelation” actually means--as I've enunciated it in previous posts. It may well prove necessary to examine The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible at length to come to grips with this issue, but we will first proceed by examining Ratzinger's own later, and shorter, writings.

SO, IN CONCLUSION: Ratzinger correctly identifies the problems that afflict modern Biblical Interpretation as philosophical problems. Unfortunately, he offers no cure for those philosophical problems but instead tries to sidestep them. In so doing he offers a solution which results in what could be called a fideism, resting as it does on faith as a conviction rather than as a product of reason: reasoned belief.


  1. I wish I had found this essay 7 years ago. The Net seems to be divided into atheists (who are happy to criticise the Bible) & Catholics (who oppose the HCM). I have found almost no Christians not opposed to it, usually for reasons that do not bear examination.

  2. I'm glad you found it useful, James. Ratzinger can be difficult to sort out. The fact is that the Catholic faith rests at its heart on history. For that reason HCM is indispensable, even though (as you note) it's very common to find Catholics who attack it. I guess that means that an awful lot of Catholics aren't terribly well acquainted with the faith they claim to profess.

  3. I'm guessing you have already read this but I think it's an interesting read on this subject.

    1. Thanks, ROLL TIDE. You double commented so I deleted your repeat.

    2. I skipped quickly to the Conclusion. I fully agree with these sentiments:

      "it is essential that Christian scholars recognize and refute those philosophical commitments holding sway within the academy which are both false and corrosive of Christian faith."

      That is precisely why I criticize Ratzinger, because of his false and corrosive philosophical views, which he makes no secret of.