Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Benedict on the Historical Critical Method

In the last post I talked about Brant Pitre's fine article in Letter and Spirit. In that post, I mentioned another article in that same issue by Scott Hahn on Pope Benedict XVI. The full title of that article is: "The Authority of Mystery: The Biblical Theology of Benedict XVI."

Scott's article starts off by describing the significance of the election of Benedict: "Never before in the history of the Catholic Church has a world-class biblical theologian been elevated to the papacy" (76).

As Hahn's article explains, long before his papacy, Benedict was emphasizing the central place of Scripture for doing theology. In his book Principles of Catholic Theology, the Pope explains,
"The normative theologians are the authors of Holy Scripture."

But how does one interpret Scripture? As Hahn shows, that question has been one of the crucial themes of his work. After a brief overview of his career (77-79), Scott sketches out Benedict's views on the matter.

Since we've been talking here about historical Jesus research, I thought it appropriate to highlight some of the things the article reveals about Benedict's thought on the subject of historical critical methods.

Though he recognizes the important role of the historical-critical method, Benedict has also been voicing his concern about certain aspects of its aproach. Hahn explains, "Benedict, then, does not at all seek to invalidate the historical-critical method, only to 'purify' it through self-examination, so that it can truly serve its proper function in the search for the truth" (81).

Hahn highlights two elements of Benedict's "critique of criticism". At heart, his critique has to do with certain philosophical presuppositions made. In fact, Benedict has explained: "At its core, the debate about modern exegesis is... a philosophical debate. Only in this way can it be carried on correctly. Otherwise, it is a battle in a mist."

Hahn goes on to explain Benedict's argument:
"He roots what he calls the 'crisis' in modern biblical interpretation in philosophical, epistemological, and historical assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment. His most basic criticism of criticism is that it is far from what it purports to be—a value-neutral science akin to the natural sciences, the findings of which are objective and rendered with a high degree of certitude.
So much could be said, go here for more on my take on the influence of the Enlightenment on critical approaches to Scripture (see the subsequent parts of the series).

Of course, the Enlightenment project was reinforced by advances in natural sciences. Descartes and others wished to develop theories of knowledge through methods similar to those used in mathematics and the natural sciences. According to Benedict, such a concern is also latent in historical critical methodology. Hahn explains:
In the case of biblical criticism, Benedict pinpoints several deep-seated, yet unquestioned presuppositions that scholars bring to their work. The first they inherit from the natural sciences which they seem so anxious to emulate—the evolutionary model of natural development. Evolution posits that later, more complex life-forms evolve from earlier, simpler forms. Applied to Scripture study, this has led exegetes to suppose that, in Benedict’s words, "the more theologically considered and sophisticated a text is, the more recent it is, and the simpler something is, the easier it is to reckon it original" (81)
Think "Q" or the "Documentary Hypothesis."

Benedict, of course, explains that this kind of a priori decision by scholars is problematic. He states: "Spiritual processes do not follow the rule of zoological genealogies" (82).

Hahn explains that a close study of Church history reveals that the development of doctrine is much more complex than an evolutionary hypothesis can account for--it could even be considered an "anti-evolutionary" process (82).

As Benedict notes, the early Church’s beliefs about the identity of Jesus started from an original multiplicity of complex names and concepts found in Scripture and in the early liturgical and creedal tradition—Jesus as Prophet, Priest, Paraclete, Angel, Lord, and Son of Man. Finally, through a process of what Benedict calls "increasing simplification and concentration," Church authorities settled on the three titles found in the earliest creeds—Christ, Lord, and Son of God" (82).
Hahn also discusses a second major critique Benedict makes of historical critical analysis: the tendency to separate the biblical texts from their original ecclesial and liturgical contexts. Hahn writes, "The root of the problem is a refusal, on methodological grounds, to engage the divine nature of the religious text" (83).

With his usual brilliance, Scott sums up Benedict's critique with great precision:
Why would students of the Bible establish, as a methodological principle, the necessity of deliberately excluding reference to the texts’ original and living "habitats" in the faith communities that gave rise to these texts and still regard them to be sacred and authoritative? A natural scientist, by comparison, would never presume to study an animal or plant without considering its surrounding environment or ecosystem. Yet this is precisely the modus operandi of "scientific" exegesis (83).
(This was one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole article!). In fact, for most historical-critical scholars, to be "scientific" about studying Scripture one must view the faith of the communities which produced them, adopted them and passed them on with "suspicion". Here we may see part of the legacy of the Reformation's insistence on Sola Scriptura (85).

He goes on to talk about the root of the problem--the underlying Enlightenment bias against faith, the supernatural and the miraculous. Hahn writes, "This puts historical critics in the position of having to explain away rather than to explicate the plain sense of many biblical texts, such as those of Christ walking on water, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing the sick, and raising persons from the dead" (84).

The fundamental question here is this: doesn't the bias against faith fly directly in the face of scholarship's attempt to be objective? The answer is, most assuredly it does.

In response to approaches rooted in a "hermeneutic of doubt," Benedict has argued for the importance of a "hermeneutic of faith." Hahn explains, "The power of Benedict’s critique lies in its insistence that we evaluate the merits of modern exegesis purely on "scientific" methodological grounds" (84). Indeed, one cannot reduce Scripture's meaning to historical analysis and truly attempt to hear it on its own terms. Benedict explains, "To reduce all of reality as we meet it to pure material causes, to confine the Creator Spirit to the sphere of mere subjectivity, is irreconcilable with the fundamental message of the Bible" (86).

Moreover, one cannot separate Scripture from the community--the Church--from which it comes to us. "Considered historically, then, there is an obvious and undeniable 'interwoven relationship between Church and Bible, between the people of God and the Word of God'" (87). The liturgical context in which it was originally read and for which the canon was formed as well as the Tradition of the Church cannot simply be jettisoned (88-89).

Ratzinger speaks of the "Church as memory" (90). Hahn goes on to explain that for Benedict, the Church's Tradition is more than a mere collection of extra-biblical data--it is a "a sort of ongoing divine intervention in history that ensures that every succeeding generation may have the same contact with the risen Christ experienced by the first disciples" (90). This encounter with Christ is found in a special way in the liturgy, where Benedict states we have "contemporaneity with Christ" (90).

Here's where I'll leave off... but, take it from me, the rest of the article is amazing. Pick up the latest Letter and Spirit here.


cranky said...

Do solid Catholics like you and those you blog about have any idea how continually challenging it is for new converts to keep a handle on Sacred Tradition? Accepting Magisterium was/is a walk in the park. But Tradition appears to often include whatever the writer I'm reading wants it to be. And if they want to change it, they say it developed and reference Newman. If they want to dismiss something someone else is promoting, they quote somebody who knew somebody whom we are told theythink knew John.

I'm not advocating a retreat to Sola Scriptura and all that, but we new guys in the pew sometimes see Tradition/tradition/discipline/convenience/ and guile all blending indistinguishably together.

As I tried out some new Apologetic maneuvers on an Assembly of God friend, I was frozen in place by his queries:What book has the Tradition written down in it? You mean it's what the Pope said it is?
Isn't that sorta like the supreme court except the Pope is seen as conservative and the court is liberal?

I stumbled, stuttered, made appeals to my authorities I'd been reading that temporarily backed him off (Hahn, Groechel, Madrid, Keating) and retreated to whine and lick my wounds.

Michael Barber said...


Pick up Congar's book "What is Tradition?" and Scott Hahn's book (not the journal), "Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word."

These are two great treatments on the matter.

Ben said...

MB >> Congar's book "What is Tradition?"

Very simply put, tradition is institutionalized ignorance.

Michael Barber said...


I'm sorry you feel that way. Certainly your view doesn't reflect Paul's outlook:

"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess 2:15).

God bless!

Anonymous said...

"Sources of Catholic Dogma" by Denzinger is a classic work which includes pronouncements by Councils and Popes. It is a great source of Catholic tradition. I think it is now online.