Thursday, April 21, 2005

Overview of Ratzinger's "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis"

Here is a brief overview of Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, a lecture delivered on 27 January 1988, at Saint Peter's Church, in New York, NY.

In this lecture Pope Benedict, when he was a Cardinal, comments on the Historical-Critical method of biblical exegesis, which has caused great divisiveness and doubt within Christendom. Here he starts the lecture:

"In Vladimir Soloviev's History of the Antichrist, the eschatological enemy of the Redeemer recommended himself to believers, among other things, by the fact that he had earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen and had written an exegetical work which was recognized as pioneering in the field. The Antichrist, a famous exegete! With this paradox Soloviev sought to shed light on the ambivalence inherent in biblical exegetical methodology for almost a hundred years now. To speak of the crisis of the historical-critical method today is practically a truism. This, despite the fact that it had gotten off to so optimistic a start."

No doubt the Devil delights in modern biblical exegesis, which sows confusion instead of clarity.

Church doctrine or dogma was considered by Enlightenment minds as an impediment to understanding scripture. Science, not tradition, would be the guiding light in religion, and would, in their minds, reveal the true Jesus, and be truly objective. As Ratzinger explains, this new method initially had high aims and its practitioners were optimistic.

But things became confused. The practitioners of the scientific method, who like to dissect their subjects, were no longer reading scripture as an organic whole; they multiplied their theories, which ended up being inconsistent with each other. Another major flaw was that the scholars tended to look too intently at the human hand in the history and ignore God. To get around God, they hypothesized unknown original sources, and theorized that these pure sources were later edited into the current texts. Anyone who has heard of "Q", a hypothetical precursor to the synoptic Gospels, has seen this theory in action. Scholars then end up arguing about these hypothetical sources instead of the actual texts. As Ratzinger says: "finally they turn into a jungle of contradictions."

The reaction to this was Protestant Fundamentalism, which tries to read the Bible literally and normatively, but Ratzinger says there are problems with this method also.

He says that reading the Bible is more than just a historical autopsy. Alternative modernist and feminist exegesis do not even claim to have an understanding of the original textual intent. It is strange that these people would even be called scholars. However, the real message of these scholars is that the Bible's message is unknowable and meaningless for today's world, for they are not interested in truth but their own agenda. Too many reconstructions of the message of Jesus, done under some philosophical method, end up being merely a product of that philosophy. Also, the dissected Bible often ends up being stitched back together to form a Frankenstein monster of sorts.

Ratzinger says that a criticism of the Historical-Critical method itself is needed. Too much product of that method has the appearance of "a quasi-clinical-scientific certainty": just look at the results of the Jesus Seminar, which are presented by the media as fact. He say that the results of this method do not have the validity of the natural sciences, and the role of the scholar and his point of view needs to be considered. He calls this the "diachronic approach to exegetical findings".

"Liberal Theology" made many judgments about what was "historical" or "unhistorical"; later developments considered that everything written is mythology, even our current texts. Another theme was "discontinuity", everything is incoherent. Obviously there is huge room here for arbitrary choice and opinion. This is hardly science.

Another trend was the scholarly opposition of thesis and antithesis, not just between classes of persons, but even between classes of ideas. Some scholars try to show a Marxist struggle between oppressed Judaic thought and parasitic Hellenistic ideas. "With these presuppositions," Ratzinger says, "the picture of Jesus is determined in advance. Thus Jesus has to be conceived in strongly "Judaic" terms. Anything "Hellenistic" has to be removed from him. All apocalyptic, sacramental, mystical elements have to be pruned away. What remains is a strictly "eschatological" prophet, who really proclaims nothing of substance." How we got from there to here is a vast subject: scholars posit large numbers of "Jesus Communities", kind of like proto-Protestant denominations, which is in quite different from the Catholic understanding of the college of Apostles who labored mightily to keep all united. These scholars, using the scientific method, denied anything that was miraculous, or could not be explained by science, so here we have history being revised according to a philosophic system. We shouldn't forget that the scientific method itself is not provable and must be taken on faith. "At its core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among historians: it is rather a philosophical debate." And the current debate is very narrow, dismissing the exegesis of the Church Fathers as allegory and the philosophy of the Middle Ages as pre-critical.

"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." And this is contrary to the aim of scripture itself.

Ratzinger's suggestions are:

a) Recognize elements of philosophies and consider how they affect the results.
b) Recognize where errors have crept in, and particularly relativistic judgments.
c) Compare modern claims with the ancients.
d) What is helpful and what is not?
e) Bring in faith.

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