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Historical-Critical Scripture Studies and the Catholic Faith | Michael Waldstein | Ignatius Insight
The influx of modern Scripture studies into the Catholic Church in many ways
resembled the influx of Aristotelianism in the 13th century. In both instances,
the Church encountered a form that was laden with presuppositions and
interpretations inimical to the Catholic Faith. Historical-critical exegesis
had been practiced by liberal Protestants steeped in the rationalism of the
Enlightenment, joined with various currents of German philosophy, long before
Catholics began to make their own contribution.
Nature, many liberal Protestants assumed, follows the unalterable course of its
laws. Miracles are, therefore, impossible. Jesus cannot have wrought those
reported in the Gospels. Nor can he have been the Son of God. Nor can his death
have been salvific.
Religion is not revealed, but arises from the depths of the human heart. Dogmas
can not, therefore, claim any permanent validity. Nor can any ecclesiastical
office teach them in a binding way. As Kant put it, binding dogmatic teaching
is "a crime against humanity because it is the original vocation of
humanity to progress to enlightenment-i.e., in self-impelled knowledge that has
cast off the tutelage of all external authority" (Kant, What is the
Enlightenment?, p. 488). Scripture is a collection of books
produced, like any other collection, by mere human beings, without the miracle
of inspiration. And hence the method for interpreting it cannot differ from the
method of interpreting any other text.
It is entirely understandable that the reaction of the Church authorities and
of traditional Catholic theology to the encroachment of such ideas resembled
its reaction to the influx of Muslim Aristotelianism. It was only when scholars
began to sort out valid insights that the situation began to change. Vatican II
was able to face the new approach to Scripture with greater equanimity. The
decades since then have seen a veritable explosion of Catholic contributions to
historical-critical Scripture studies.
Two Separate Orders of Truth
It was a great misfortune in the development of historical-critical exegesis
that the most vigorous and influential effort to overcome the defects of
liberal Protestantism was Rudolf Bultmann.
Bultmann became an implacable enemy of liberal Protestant exegesis when he
realized that it had cast aside the very center of the Christian faith:
definitive salvation offered by God's gratuitous love in Jesus Christ.
Yet, when he proposed his own alternative, he did so in the framework of
Neo-Kantian philosophy—which led exegesis from the frying pan into the
According to Bultmann's Neo-Kantian philosophy, the world that surrounds us,
the world studied by natural science, is not a real world. It is a mere product
of the human mind. Even more: it is a world which flows specifically from human
sin. For sin, which is resistance against God's word, finds its supreme
expressions in the self-sufficient mechanism of the material world in which no
room can be found for God.
Although this world is a mere construct of the sinful human mind, according to
this philosophy, and not something objectively real, we cannot avoid it. As
children of the twentieth century we necessarily see the world as modern science
sees it. As historians of objective events, we are condemned to viewing the
past according to the laws inherent in the sinful scientific cosmos. Thus,
again, there are no miracles, no divinity of Jesus, no atoning sacrifice on the
cross, no revealed truths and no objective inspiration of Scripture. For the
historian, Scripture is a purely human book, a curious amalgam of magical and
mythical religious dreams and speculations from antiquity.
Since we unavoidably construct our "world," including the past,
according to the patterns of twentieth century science, the objective history
of Jesus cannot be what is important for the believer. As a figure found in the
material world, studied scientifically by the critical historian, Jesus is as
much a sinful product of the human mind as the atoms swirling under our feet.
God's saving revelation lies on a completely different level. It is found in
the existential impact of Scripture when Scripture is preached as the Word of
God. This impact cannot be spelled out in dogmatic form: to do so would be to
fall back into the mechanism of sin, the mechanism of security, control and
resistance to the call of God. Salvation [does he mean revelation?] is a purely
contentless divine jolt that frees us from clinging to the certainties of the
world of sin while, at the same time, leaving us immersed in these certainties.
Simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just and a sinner, as
Luther put it.
In this way Bultmann left the rationalism of liberal Protestant exegesis
completely intact, even though he condemned it, at the same time, as a sin. He
simply added a second element, the element of the unutterable, indescribable
jolt that reverberates in our existence when the Word of God is preached. As
the historical Jesus, Jesus is part of the world of sin; as the preached Jesus,
He is the saving Word of God.
Bultmann's "solution" of the crisis of liberal Protestant exegesis
bears a striking resemblance to the separation between two orders of truth
posited by Muslim commentators of Aristotle and the Latin Averrroists. It is
also uncannily reminiscent of the nightmares of ancient Gnosticism. Like
Bultmann, the Gnostics saw the objective cosmos as a place of profound evil.
While Bultmann's cosmos is a product of the human mind, the Gnostic cosmos is
the product of the wicked creator-God spoken of in Genesis; it is dominated by
evil powers, vile beyond description. As in Bultmann, salvation comes through a
"call of awakening" that speaks of an unutterable divinity utterly
beyond this evil cosmos.
A Sign of Hope
It is a great sign of hope in some aspects of historical-critical exegesis that
from such a blasted and desolate intellectual soil there sprang an exegete who
displayed some of the deeply Catholic features found in St. Thomas Aquinas.
Heinrich Schlier was one of Bultmann's most gifted students, poised to make a
great name for himself, when suddenly, in 1953, he became a Catholic, to the
great consternation of his teacher and fellow students.
His motives for converting throw much light on the relationship between
historical-critical exegesis and the Catholic Faith. For this reason I will
quote him at some length.
"Circumstances, meetings, and experiences... cooperated to make me
Catholic in outlook, but the impulse which decided me came from the New
Testament, the interpretation of which had become my profession. The New
Testament gradually made me ask whether the Lutheran creed, and the new
Evangelical faith which deviates considerably from this creed, agreed with this
witness. Little by little it convinced me that the Church it had in mind was
the Roman Catholic Church. Thus my way to the Church was a truly Protestant
one, if I may so express it...
"In this connection I must mention one other thing. It was the New
Testament subjected to an impartial historical interpretation which led me to
the Church. This does not contradict what I later affirmed when I said that any
interpretation of the Holy Scripture must be in the spirit of the Church, if it
is to be a true interpretation. For the spirit of the Church includes also the
impartiality of genuine historical research. And this is carried out, too, not
in a spirit of slavery to fear, but of sonship. Historical research really
objectively open to historical phenomena is also a means of illuminating the
truth. Thus it, too, can discover the Church and be a way to her. For this
reason I am still grateful to those who introduced me to this work.
"But exactly what was it that the New Testament revealed to me, as little
by little, it rendered the Church and her faith more visible to me?... The
first (insight) if I arrange my thoughts somewhat objectively, was this: The
New Testament itself recognizes and propounds the historical fact of the
unfolding and development of the apostolic deposit of faith which is so
fundamental to the understanding of tradition in its wider sense. In the New
Testament Christ's free giving of himself through the Holy Spirit in the Church
is in 'principle' captured and documented; that is to say, we find its origin
and beginning there. And it manifests itself in connection with the apostolic
heritage, which cannot be contained only in the New Testament writings, (but)
more and more in the total tradition of the Church to this day.
"Otherwise the development of the 'Jesus tradition' apart from the gospels
as well as within them cannot be theologically explicable. One can only
understand it as the 'self-exegesis' of the Logos, Jesus Christ himself through
the Holy Spirit through the faith of the Church. This is particularly obvious
in the Fourth Gospel.
"The process of the development of the primal events can also be seen in
the epistles of the Apostle Paul. To cite one example, this is not only visible
in the development of this concept of the Church but in the development of the
actual historical phenomenon of the Church. In the pastoral letters, one is
already faced with reflections upon the factual basis of a developing
tradition, reflections induced by a new situation in the Church.
"Thus, no one can deny that the New Testament recognizes the process of
the development of both the historical phenomena in themselves and the
understanding of them. Research in historical criticism has made us conscious
of this fact... in one way or another, the process of which Christ hands
himself on in a self-explaining tradition becomes manifest in the New
"...[The New Testament] affirms implicitly that the fundamental principle
which the Roman Catholic Church unerringly teaches was operative in apostolic
times, namely, the principle of the Church's everlasting identity with herself
maintained by the help of the Holy Spirit. To express it in another way, this
is the fundamental principle of the one and undivided tradition.
"...(The Church) is always more than the sum of her members; she is,
therefore, above each individual member. In her, and through her, God
demonstrates that he has entered into time to meet us; He demonstrates his will
which he made manifest in the Incarnation of his Logos. In the Church and
through her, as time passes, our Lord unfolds his fullness, the fullness of
truth, and he continues to give himself in loving-kindness to human beings for
their salvation." (H. Schlier, "A Brief Apologia" in K. Hardt,
S.J., ea., We are Now Catholics, pp. 193-214).
Heinrich Schlier's life and work are particularly remarkable, because he did
not come in contact with historical-critical Scripture studies as a Catholic.
Being a Lutheran himself, he studied under the Lutheran Rudolf Bultmann. What
led him to the Catholic Church, in fact to a profound love of the Church that
speaks from every one of his writings, was precisely his historical-critical
studies of the Bible. Extraordinary humility and pliability before the truth
were necessary for him to make the final step of becoming a Catholic—a
step that exposed him to the attacks and ridicule of many former friends and
colleagues. It is a path that clearly points to the elements of truth found in
historical-critical studies, even in the Bultmann circle with its disastrous
philosophical premises. It bears out one of Aristotle's famous sayings,
"Truth is like the proverbial barn-door which no one manages to miss
entirely" (Metaphysics II, 1).
What Is the Historical-Critical Method?
If Schlier's life and work eloquently point to the elements of truth found in
historical-critical Scripture studies, the question may be asked, "What
then is this thing of which so many concerned Catholics are suspicious?"
An important distinction must immediately be made, namely the distinction
between historical-critical exegesis, understood as the
accumulated and ever more quickly accumulating deposit of Scripture studies,
and the historical-critical method. The
historical-critical method is not, in the first place, a set of theses about Scripture.
It is defined by certain types of questions and certain types of tools used to address them.
For example, the method of form criticism, first developed by Bultmann and
Dibelius, asks the question, "What was the function of a particular
passage of the Gospels as it was presented to the community?" The
instruments of form criticism are manifold: analysis of the literary form of a
particular passage, possible relation to questions that preoccupied a
Raising such a question and attempting to answer it with the expectation that
something definite will be found presupposes, of course, not only questions and
techniques, but a thesis about the Gospels. The Second Vatican Council states
this thesis as follows: "The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels,
selecting some things from the many which had been handed on either by word of
mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating
some things in view of the situation of their churches, and preserving the form of proclamation but always
in such a fashion that they recounted to us the honest truth about Jesus"
(Dei Verbum, no. 19).
A further set of questions and techniques are implied in this text, namely,
redaction criticism. This kind of criticism asks the question: "What were
the principles that governed a particular writer in his selection of particular
events, in synthesizing others in particular ways, etc.?" The technique,
at least in the case of the synoptic Gospels, is that of comparing the
different places in which parallel passages are found, their particular
function in the overall outline of the text, etc.
If one understands the historical-critical method in this way as a set of
questions of a certain type and a set of tools used to answer these questions,
one can hardly find fault with it in principle. It is a relatively new method.
A rigorous and consistent application of it cannot be found in Patristic,
Medieval and Renaissance exegesis: they tended to ask different sorts of
questions and employ different sorts of tools. Still, it is clearly, as such,
The difficulty experienced by concerned Catholics when they come in contact
with historical-critical Scripture scholarship lies on a different level: it
lies in particular examples of historical-critical exegesis, which are
unavoidably the products, not simply of the historical-critical method, but of
certain philosophical and theological premises as well.
Shortcuts and Prudence
All sides involved in the dramatic struggle over the meanings of the Scriptures
are tempted to take illegitimate shortcuts. For example, a teacher of
philosophy, certainly not a well-trained theologian or Scripture scholar,
published an alleged synthesis of the views of "a new Catholic theology
founded on modern exegesis of the Bible" (see Thomas Sheehan, New York
Review of Books, June 14, 1984). The
article is to be faulted in that it lumps together various exegetes and
theologians. Its real purpose seems to have been, not to present a careful and
attentive digest, but to legitimate the author's own views by association with
various names. It was an efficacious political ploy, but a failure when
measured by the standard of truth.
Some of Sheehan's opponents fell into the same temptation. His insight, and his
agenda, were not sufficiently questioned and many Catholics concerned about the
historical-critical approach cried out: "See, we told you! Here you have
Another illegitimate shortcut is the quick adoption of views that support one
side or the other. The "Jesus Seminar" has raised much dust recently
by voting on what are, and what are not, authentic words of Jesus. Such a
format may be politically useful, but intellectually it is useless. Many whose
general convictions inclined them toward the Seminar's conclusions took the
shortcut of quickly adopting them without argument.
Conversely, one can find Catholics who are more rooted in the theological
tradition quickly jumping on rather rickety exegetical bandwagons if they
promise to support certain conclusions. For example, some Qumran scholars,
whose expertise lies in Hebrew linguistics rather than in the study of the
Gospels, have recently argued that the Gospels are translations from the Hebrew
or Aramaic. Their views were all too quickly adopted by some because they hold
out the promise of greater historical proximity to Jesus.
Prudence requires a conscious effort to avoid such shortcuts. What is required
is a longer way. The center of our attitude towards historical-critical
exegesis and its practitioners should lie in prayer for those who practice it,
in prayer for figures like St. Thomas and Heinrich Schlier. It should lie in a
deep peace in God's truth made manifest in his Church.
If judgment on a particular exegete is fed from this source, its tone will be
charitable end patient, accompanied by openness when issues are at stake that
do not endanger the essential content of the Catholic Faith. What can be
avoided in this way is the tone of scathing attack, the tone of bitter
nervousness, which tends to flow too much into the lives of us sinners. A lay
person's verdict will often have to be, "I don't know. I would need to
study this in more detail."
Such prudence in no way excludes firmness of conviction and struggle against
public scandal. However, this struggle is, in the first place, the burden of
those who stand in succession of the apostles, even if we may at times become
impatient with them.
This article was taken from the March-April 1996 issue of
Catholic Dossier. A longer
version of this article appeared in the July-August 1992 issue of Lay
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Dr. Michael Waldstein, Distinguished
Fellow of The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, is St. Francis of Assisi
Professor of New Testament at the International Theological Institute in
He holds a BA from Thomas Aquinas College, a Doctoral degree
in Philosophy (PhD) from the University of Dallas, a Licentiate in Sacred
Scripture (SSL) from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and a Doctoral
degree in New Testament and Christian Origins (ThD) from Harvard University.
Dr. Waldstein writes widely on the subject of the Gospel of
John and Gnosticism, and has published numerous scholarly articles related to
the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope John Paul
II. He is author, with Frederik Wisse, of a synoptic edition of the four
surviving papyrus manuscripts in the Sahidic Egyptian dialect of the Gnostic
secret revelation of Jesus to John, The Apocryphon of John: Synopsis of Nag
Hammadi Codices II,1 III,1 and IV,1 with BG 8502,2 (Brill, 1995). He recently completed a new translation with extensive
introduction and index of John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created
Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline,
2006). He is working on a book entitled John Paul II's Theology of
the Body: Context and Argument.
He and his wife Susan are members of the Pontifical Council
for the Family. They live in Gaming and have eight children.
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