The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
The impression that the Second Vatican Council marked a radical break with the Catholic past is a cliché that dies hard. It is kept alive, ironically, both by liberals who wish it were so, and by certain traditionalists with an interest in minimizing, if not altogether discrediting, the Councils authority.
Thus, if asked, most Catholics would probably say that the Council gave wholesale approval to modern biblical scholarship and justified for Catholics the "demythologizing" approach to the Bible that has long been in use among liberal Protestants. Some Catholics even some bishops never tire of insisting that "Catholics are not fundamentalists".
But to the degree that Catholics are not fundamentalists, in the sense of accepting the historical truth of the Bible, the Council gave them little encouragement. If liberals read the conciliar decree on Scripture, Dei Verbum, with complete objectivity, they have to admit that it makes them uncomfortable.
The authority for modern interpretive methods (exegesis) appears mainly in one passage (III, l2):
One of the great achievements of modern scholarship,
now trivialized to the point of caricature by Deconstructionism, has been
the realization that it cannot simply be assumed that the texts of the
past are immediately accessible to modern minds and that a certain effort
is necessary to retrieve authentic meanings. Obviously it is this crucial
scholarly insight that the Council endorsed.
The Jesus Seminar has taken to its farthest point
the implications of the dominant modern biblical scholarship, defiantly
claiming that much of what is found in the New Testament was fabricated
by the evangelists or is at least unreliable. Many Catholic exegetes practice
essentially the same hermeneutic (interpretive system) without being quite
so radical, and the more moderate among them sometimes engage in a kind
of sleight-of-hand, implying that the evangelists did not purposely fabricate
parts of their narratives but simply never intended their accounts to
be taken as historically accurate, something of which modern scholarship
has finally become aware. But this "moderate" position is untenable
and would be accepted neither by the members of the radical Jesus Seminar
nor by believing Christians.
But apart from specific scholarly theories, there is a fundamental anomaly at the root of much modern biblical scholarship, which is how it is possible to place under a microscope, so to speak, what is affirmed to be the living word of God. How can a text said to embody Gods own revelation to His people, claimed as essential to ones salvation, acknowledged to be infinitely beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend, be treated simply as another literary genre?
In "proving" the divine authority of Scripture, the Second Vatican Council (DV, I, l) cited the text of Scripture itself, a method of exegesis that would be outrageous if applied to any other document. But if the Bible is true, it is indeed self-validating and no amount of scholarly activity could ever validate it in any other way.
(This article first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier magazine).
Other IgnatiusInsight.com columns by Dr. Hitchcock:
Ordeal by Ideology: The Grilling of Judge Roberts
The Supreme Court's Penumbra of Politics
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: Man for the Job
Confronting Modern Culture; Asserting the Gospel
Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results
Is Tolerance Intolerant?
The Myth of the Wall of Separation
The Church and the Media
Personally OpposedTo What?
Theory of the Enlightened Class
Dr. James Hitchcock, (e-mail) professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press, in the Adoremus Bulletin, and on the Women for Faith and Family website. He is the author of several books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life: The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples" (Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals, including Catholic World Report.
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