Monday, August 29, 2011

Exegesis as Theology, Theology as Exegesis

One of the most jaw-dropping sections in Pope Benedict's recent letter, Verbum Domini, states the following:
"where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and conversely, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation" (Verbum Domini, no. 35).
In a sense, here Pope Benedict is reiterating what the Second Vatican Council taught, namely, "the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology" (Dei Verbum, 24).

In fact, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger said that "dogma is by definition nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture” (“Crisis in Catechesis,” Canadian Catholic Review, 7 (1983): 8/178. Thus he explained, “the Bible becomes the model of all theology” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987], 321).

But in some ways Benedict's vision in Verbum Domini goes even further beyond these statements. For Benedict exegesis must be theology and theology must be "essentially the interpretation of the Church's Scripture".

The latter line has especially hit me hard. Can Catholic theologians really describe their work as "essentially the interpretation of the Church's Scripture"? This is more than merely proof-texting; theology must be exegetical.

This is a real challenge for Catholic theologians--not just Scripture scholars. To illustrate this, consider theological reflection on "invincible ignorance." How often have you seen such a discussion emerge from biblical texts? It seems to me that Paul's teaching in Romans 2 would be a fruitful place to begin:
All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus."
But how many theological textbooks examining the question of "invincible ignorance" offer an exegesis of this passage--not a proof-text, but a truly rigorous examination of the meaning of this passage and its possible relevance?

Seems we have a long way to go before we realize the vision of the Second Vatican Council.


Keen Reader said...

"dogma is by definition nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture”

When does interpretation become elaboration?

Bob MacDonald said...

"A long way to go"
I welcome such an insight.

This passage from Romans 2 requires a deeper reflection on obedience than most NT Christian dogma allows on its surface. The roots of it go into the interpretation of the experience of the elect in the psalms.

But since I am not a systematic theologian, what do you mean by invincible ignorance in this context? It seems to me that it is vincible ignorance that is the real problem. Things we ought to be able to deal with but can't. (What the psalmist writes of that is trouble within him - yet known). E.g. psalm 18:18 and 142:7, a pair of troubles for the human, bracketing the bulk of the Psalter.

My translation may be questionable, but I have rendered the difficulty as:
He will deliver me from my strong enemy
and from those hating me
for they command from within me
Attend to my shout
for I am brought very low
Deliver me from my persecutors
for they command from within me

It is verses like these that make me question the primacy of morality in our theology. Morality is not possible without the indwelling Spirit to bind the strong that commands within us. (So it is that I have trouble with the 1870 doctrine concerning ex cathedra and statements of faith and morals. Our speech acts alone are not words of Spirit and Life - though they are not absent from us.)

Thomas Beyer said...

Without a doubt, Sola Scriptura is one of the worst and most destructive heresies the world has ever seen. On the other hand, I tend to be suspicious of the reactionary notion that Holy Scripture is nothing more than the (rather incomplete) written witness to Sacred Tradition. This does not seem to be the attitude taken by the Fathers or Augustine, and certainly not St. Thomas. As with many historical theological arguments, I think both sides of the coin have elements of the truth, and the error comes in stressing one to the detriment of the other.

I think what you end up with is Scripture being a kind of incarnation of Christian doctrine (i.e., the person of Christ), in other words, a very important (the most important) sacramental. While it is true that it doesn't explicitly contain every last dogma, it does contain them all implicitly. It's just taken us this long to realize it à la Newman's Development of Christian Doctrine.

If this is true, then all theology is really just exegesis, because everything that can be said about the Truth of Christ is contained in those pages, if only we can flesh it out.

Stop by my blog, PopSophia.

Nobel Savage said...

I think that when we consider interpretation of the Holy Writ, we have to take a few things into consideration.

First, the Holy Scripture is a huge treasure, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Second, the infallible interpretation of the Sacred Scripture is identical to infallible doctrines in the Paradosis. But we cannot forget that the OT is a priceless part of Scriptures. So many of our doctrines only become clear through the Christ lensing of the OT writing.

Third, the Sacred Scripture, and its interpretation, exist in a context, as well as the science of Sacred Theology (which is a science not necessarily the historical plopping down of the entirety of every truth in the cosmos 200 years ago). As both St. John Chrysostem and St. Augustine both testify, the Sacred SCripture is wholly core and complete for anyone's education... and as the Doctor of Grace puts so pointfully, "even these [the SCriptures] I would not believe had the Catholic Church not so told me," or some phrase of that ideology.

Fourth and Finally, hermenuetics is not necessarily copmosed soley of exegesis. We bring certain presuppositions with it, including the Sared Tradition

Anonymous said...

Great layout, nice fonts. I appreciate reading and learning from this blog. Thanks.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Is Saint Augustine's exegesis of the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis correct? Do a search: First Scandal.