Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 136 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program July 2008


Address delivered by Msgr. John F. McCarthy at the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy, held in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 7, 2008.

by John F. McCarthy

1.The neo-patristic approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture is based upon the assumption that the text of Sacred Scripture has been written under the inspiration of the divine Holy Spirit and is totally inerrant. The neo-patristic approach is structured in its mental frame of reference according to the division made by St. Thomas Aquinas into two concurrent senses, the literal sense and the spiritual sense, with the spiritual sense being subdivided into the allegorical, the tropological, and the anagogical senses. This approach is mandated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 115-119), but it is at this time hardly being used anywhere. Neo-patristic scholars seek first to ascertain the literal meaning of the text and then go on to seek for one or more of the spiritual sub-senses. It often happens that, by finding spiritual senses, they arrive at a better understanding also of the literal sense. I have written many articles from the viewpoint of the neo-patristic approach which are available on the Internet at

2. In keeping with the teaching of the Church on the fundamental character of the literal sense, the neo-patristic method always begins with the literal sense and never contradicts it, but it views the literal sense in the framework of the Four Senses, as did Thomas Aquinas. The neo-patristic method seeks to use precisely defined literary genres in the way requested by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Divino afflante Spiritu to explain instances in which critics claim to find historical errors in the inspired text.

3. There is an overpowering tendency among exegetes of the form-critical school to base their reasonings upon supposed contradictions in the inspired text which prove under fuller analysis not to be contradictions at all. Hence, a prime activity of neo-patristic exegetes is to eliminate alleged contradictions in the text, and they find that the resolving of these apparent contradictions often leads to new insights even into the literal meaning of the text. Neo-patristic scholars use the best techniques of textual criticism to determine the exact wording of the text, and they look for sources behind the text, not excluding by any means divine inspiration as the primary source. They do not claim to know the solution to all of the historical problems treated in contemporary study of the Bible, but they are confident that the answers to the few unsolved problems are objectively there to be found. One reason for the need of the neo-patristic approach in our time is the decline in the defense of the inerrancy of the Scriptures on the part of Catholic theologians and Scripture scholars. The advent and prevalence of the historical-critical method in the field of Catholic biblical scholarship, especially in the use of the form-critical approach by which it is now characterized, has undermined Catholic apologetics to the point that any attempt to reconcile apparently contradictory passages is today often disparaged as “concordism” or “fundamentalism.”

4. The method of form-criticism was a development from the so-called “higher criticism” of the nineteenth century. The form-criticism of the Old Testament took form in the 1890s and was fully established by 1901, when Hermann Gunkel published his celebrated commentary on the book of Genesis. Beginning from almost anywhere, I could show the weakness of contemporary Catholic responses to attacks upon the inerrancy of the text of Sacred Scripture, and above all the inerrancy of the Gospels, but one very good example is the feeble Catholic response to the writings of Rudolf Bultmann, who was probably the most influential biblical scholar of the twentieth century, and whose dominating influence continues even to this day. Bultmann was an historical critic of the liberal Protestant school, and was the most influential founder of the form-criticism of the Gospels and of the New Testament in general. Rudolf Bultmann made the first big impact of his career when he published his History of the Synoptic Tradition in 1921. This was a powerful attack upon the historicity of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, expressed with such imposing Germanic organization and thoroughness that it seemed in the minds of poorly prepared biblical scholars to destroy forever any trustworthiness that believers might have had in these Gospel accounts. It sat undigested in the belly of liberal Catholic Scripture scholarship for more than two decades, and then, after the publication of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, various positive and laudatory references to Bultmann’s conclusions began to appear in books and articles of Catholic scholars. Bultmann was a complete Modernist who extolled the viewpoint of “modern man” and in his mind reduced the Gospels and the whole of the Bible to a brand of mythology. In 1941 appeared his Gospel of John, which took the Fourth Gospel totally out of the realm of history. In 1943 appeared Bultmann’s famous debunking of the Gospels titled “New Testament and Mythology.” For him there were no such things as Heaven, Hell, miracles, prophecies, angels, or any interventions of God into the history of man.

5. While traditionally oriented Catholic theologians and Scripture scholars responded as best they could to the rationalistic attacks of Gunkel, Bultmann, and other liberal Protestant exegetes, against the historicity and inerrancy of the biblical text, the response of Catholic historical-critics was incredibly weak. In fact, it seems that many Catholic biblical scholars were intrigued and overawed from the beginning by the naturalism and audacity of these form-critical Protestant publications. It is an ongoing scandal, for instance, that the outrageous conclusions in Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (first published in 1921) have never to this day been systematically refuted by any recognized Catholic historical critic, and the reason for this failure is that Catholic historical critics, instead of undertaking to refute the mountain of fallacies and unfactual statements in this exegetical work and those of Hermann Gunkel and other rationalists, have rather viewed these writings “with envy and admiration,” as Pope Benedict XVI has observed in his recently published book, Jesus of Nazareth.1 Already in 1903, Father Marie-Joseph Lagrange, in his La méthode historique, began to copy the method of Hermann Gunkel to inaugurate the use of the form-critical method among Catholic biblical scholars. Pope St. Pius X, in his encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici gregis of 1907, condemned the historical-critical method as being the logical fruit of Modernism (see paragraph 9 below), and from that time up to the publication of the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII in 1943, Catholic historical critics abstained from publically promoting the form-criticism of Bultmann and Gunkel. But from 1943 onward, many of the ideas of these two German Protestant scholars have grown to become dominant in Catholic historical-critical scholarship.

6. Form-criticism is based upon the general principle that the supernatural does not exist, and, therefore, that all of the supernatural happenings recorded in Sacred Scripture are works of religious fantasy that require a natural explanation and can be analyzed according to a novel set of literary forms. Now, Catholic form-critics claim that Pope Pius XII opened the door to this kind of analysis in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, especially where he says: “For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East. The investigation, carried out on this point, during the past forty or fifty years with greater care and diligence than ever before, has more clearly shown what forms of expression were used in those far-off times, whether in poetic description or in the formulation of laws and rules of life or in recording the facts and events of history” (EB 558).” Note that this encyclical mentions only the standard literary genres, namely, the poetic, legal, and historical, recognized also by the Fathers of the Church, but says nothing about the genres of literary fiction dear to form-critics, such as, myth, midrash, legend, saga, apophthegm stories, apocalyptic sayings, and prophecies after the event, as well as other so-called fiction-genres, such as angelic appearances, miracle stories, I-sayings of Jesus, dia­logue stories, Passion narratives, Resurrection of Jesus stories, and other forms of this kind. Yet form-critics have managed to convince the public and many bishops that Pope Pius XII was really talking about these.

7. Hence, it is important to realize that the term “historical criticism” has now become ambiguous in ecclesiastical parlance, inasmuch as it usually is taken to mean the “higher criticism” condemned as a “pseudoscience” by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (EB 102), but it sometimes means the artis criticae disciplina (the criticism that goes naturally with all serious historical research), mentioned by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Divino afflante Spiritu. The fact is that the “form-critics” of today, imbued with the “higher criticism” that they have inherited from the liberal Protestant tradition, have managed to convince the public that their approach is the historical-critical approach and is the same as the criticism that goes with all sound historical research. They have thus perpetuated an ambiguity that works in their favor. For instance, Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, observes: “The first point is that the historical-critical method – specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith – is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. … So if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method – indeed, faith itself demands this” (Foreword, xv). Here Pope Benedict is talking about the criticism that goes with all serious historical research, but it sounds like he is approving the “historical criticism” of the “higher-criticism” and “form-criticism” school of thought, which serious historians like William Foxwell Albright have actually rejected out of hand. Albright was one of the most renowned archaeologists of the twentieth century, and this is what he had to say about the form-critical method: “Only modern scholars who lack both historical method and perspective can spin such a web of speculation as that with which form critics have surrounded the Gospel tradition.”2 So the fact that Christian faith is rooted in the truly historical does not necessarily mean that it must be examined according to the pseudo-scientific method of Hermann Gunkel, Rudolf Bultmann and other fathers of form-criticism and higher-criticism. In fact, “higher criticism” implies in its very name the subjecting of faith to the vagaries of undisciplined human reason, and this is absolutely contrary to the teaching of the Church. Catholic form-critics usually do not affirm that they are subjecting faith to reason, but neither do they deny this effectively, and they have never developed a Catholic position that clearly differs from the rationalist position of the founders of the form-critical method.

8. Not only has there been no significant rebuttal by Catholic form-critics of Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition, but neither has there been any notable Catholic response from Catholic historical-critics to Bultmann’s The Gospel of John, published in 1941. And only a miserable response has come from Catholic historical-critics to Bultmann’s famous article, “New Testament and Mythology,” published in 1943. After the Second World War, books and articles by Catholic theologians and Scripture scholars began to appear regarding the writings of Rudolf Bultmann. Typically, an article would simply summarize some of the outrageous conclusions of Bultmann and then end with a paragraph stating that, of course, these ideas were not fully acceptable to Catholics. But there was no real refutation. Regarding his demythologizing program, more serious efforts were made by some liberal Catholic theologians to refute this outrageous program, but with extremely limited success. Or a book would appear, seeming to refute some ideas of Bultmann, but having conceded so much to Bultmann’s approach that it simply played into his hands. Hence, many of these seeming refutations were only spreading Bultmann’s ideas among Catholics. The main problem was that the Schol­astic mental framework, which is so essential to the neo-patristic method and is so necessary for an effective rebuttal of this rationalist approach, was not being well used by most of Bultmann’s Catholic critics in opposing a method which is diametrically opposed to Catholic faith and to the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church.3

9. The traditional teaching of the Catholic Church on biblical inerrancy is clear. Witness: a) Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XIII (1893):There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method, dignified by the name of ‘higher criticism,’ which pretends to judge of the origin, integrity, and authority of each book from internal indications alone. . . . it will only give rise to disagreement and dissention, those sure notes of error which the critics in question so plentifully exhibit in their own persons; and seeing that most of them are tainted with false philosophy and rationalism, it must lead to the elimination from the sacred writings of all prophecy and miracles, and of everything else that is outside the natural order” (EB 119, RSS, pp. 20-214). b) Pascendi Dominici gregis of Pope St. Pius X (1907):Some Modernists, devoted to historical studies, seem to be greatly afraid of being taken for philosophers. … And yet the truth is that their history and their criticism are saturated with their philosophy, and that their historical-critical conclusions are the natural fruit of their philosophical principles5. c) Spiritus Paraclitus of Pope Benedict XV (1920):Consequently, it is not to the point to suggest that the Holy Spirit used men as his instruments for writing, and that, therefore, while no error is referable to the primary Author, it may well be due to the inspired authors themselves” (EB 452). . . . “We warmly commend, of course, those who, with the assistance of critical methods, seek to discover new ways of explaining the difficulties in Holy Scripture, whether for their own guidance or to help others, but we remind them that they will only come to miserable grief if they neglect our predecessor’s injunctions and overstep the limits set by the Fathers” (EB 453, RSS, pp. 50-51). d) Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII (1943):It is absolutely wrong and forbidden ‘either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred,’ since divine inspiration ‘not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes it and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church.’ This teaching, which Our Predecessor Leo XIII set forth with such solemnity, We also proclaim with Our authority and We urge all to adhere to it religiously” (EB 539, RSS, p. 82). e) Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII (1943):For, as the substantial Word of God became like men in all things, ‘except sin,’ so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error” (EB 559, RSS, p. 98). f) Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII (1943):(E)ven today serious problems greatly exercise the minds of Catholic exegetes. . . . . [The Catholic commentator] “may attempt to find a satisfactory solution which will be in full accord with the doctrine of the Church, in particular with the traditional teaching regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, and which will at the same time satisfy the indubitable conclusion of the profane sciences” (EB 563-564, RSS, p. 101). g) Humani generis of Pope Pius XII (1950):For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the Vatican Council’s definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters. They even wrongly speak of a human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden. In interpreting Scripture, they will take no account of the analogy of faith and the Tradition of the Church. . . . ” (EB 612, RSS, p. 113). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993):The inspired books teach the truth. ‘Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures’” (CCC 107, quoting Dei Verbum 11).6

10. Father Jean Levie, in his widely circulated book, The Bible, Word of God in Words of Men (1958), summarizes the rise of the form-critical method in Catholic biblical scholarship, and he makes a big point of the idea that the Bible is, after all, written in the words of men. In his explanation, he doesn’t deny that there is also divine inspiration; he simply doesn’t get around to finding any place for such inspiration. And so the major defect in the methodology of Catholic form-critics is not that they explicitly accept the rationalism underlying the method but rather that they do not refute and reject this rationalism and thus synthesize their method with Catholic faith and Catholic theological tradition. Nor are they sufficiently aware that rationalism is essential to the form-critical method itself.

11. Catholic seminarians and other students depend considerably for their formation in Sacred Scripture on the New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture and on the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Writing in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture from the viewpoint of a modern historical critic, Lionel Swain avers that with the advancements of textual criticism in the sixteenth century, of literary criticism in the seventeenth century, of rationalism in the eighteenth century, and of archaeology, the natural sciences, and the more scientific study of history in the nineteenth century, “it had become increasingly evident that the assertions of the Bible could no longer be taken simply at their face value.” What he means is that many believers now saw Sacred Scripture as being erroneous in many places, and others sought to cover over “the obvious discrepancies between the discoveries of the human reason and the Bible,” or tried to reconcile various errors with its overall historicity.7 There are problems with Swain’s historical overview. It was, in fact, not at all evident that, by the late nineteenth century, statements in the Bible “could not be taken at their face value.” In 1893 Pope Leo XIII declared it to be “the ancient and constant faith of the Church” that divine inspiration of itself excludes and rejects all error. Swain here makes a kind of identification of rationalism with human reason, whereas there is an essential difference between the two. Rationalism is reasoning from false principles, especially from the false assumption that miracles and the miraculous cannot really happen, and it was on the basis of this erroneous presupposition that errors and “discrepancies” were being ascribed to the Bible. The techniques of form-criticism, initiated by Hermann Gunkel, were arising, according to which every plausible crack in the biblical fabric was accorded an advance of the historical method and every truly historical vestige remaining in the Bible was deemed a snag to be overcome.

12. Lionel Swain’s affirmation that in recent centuries it became increasingly evident that statements of Sacred Scripture “could no longer be taken simply at their face value,” appears to be valid only to the extent that Catholic theologians and exegetes were neglecting their duty to solve the problems raised by some modern empirical scientists and by some historians, especially of the form-critical school. It must be kept in mind that Catholic form-critical exegetes have no intellectual tradition of their own, and they tend to look back historically, not through Catholic intellectual tradition, but through the liberal Protestant tradition, with the result that they tend to accept many of the claims made against the Catholic tradition by influential thinkers of the “Enlightenment” of the seventeenth century, of the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and of the liberal Protestant exegesis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Neo-patristic researchers keep this in mind as they examine the mental framework used by historical-critical writers. Catholic historical critics have, for the most part, rejected the mental framework used traditionally by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and by most Catholic theologians and exegetes over the centuries, with the result that they are left methodologically with a largely implicit Protestant framework which, as Catholics, they can use only partially. As a result, many of the prin­ciples that they use are not well-formulated in their minds and often function in an incorrect or twisted manner. They use terms that are poorly defined, they set up conclusions that they do not clearly express or even visualize, and they ignore answers that were given long ago by writers of Catholic tradition.

13. Swain goes on to affirm that the new historical criticism was combating “a negative, defensive attitude” which implicitly identified biblical truth with “scientific and historical accuracy.” And, he continues, it was in this context that various documents of the Magisterium “saw the necessity of affirming that the sacred books contained ‘revelation without error.’”8 But the replies of the original Pontifical Biblical Commission and other documents of the Magisterium had made clear that the biblical genre (even of its very nature) was not limited to the material precision that modern historians often set for themselves, but here we are not dealing with a question of precision. The question is rather of historical and scientific truth or error. The Magisterium has clearly and consistently taught over the centuries that the sacred text contains no scientific or historical errors, and Swain is trying to get around that. The “negative, defensive attitude” that he mentions is a feature of Catholic apologetics that has always been functional in the Church, but which has been greatly weakened in recent times, due largely to the failure of Catholic historical critics to recognize the fallacies in the attacks made against the truth of the Scriptures in the name of history and science.

14. Writing in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond Collins also presents an historical-critical view of biblical inspiration where he says that objections to the “theory of verbal inspiration” have led most critical scholars to abandon it.9 While this statement refers directly to what he calls the “prophetic model of inspiration,” it has impact on the traditional Catholic approach. The words of Sacred Scripture are verbal expressions, and it is the traditional teaching of the Church that these very words are inspired (Prov. Deus, EB 124-125). The inspiration of Sacred Scripture refers, not to the events themselves, but to their verbal expression. And, even though “human writing processes were at work,” a discernible supernatural process was also at work, and it is plainly evident both in the rapport of faith to the teaching of Scripture and in the inerrancy of the text. Since the non-Catholic originators of historical criticism and of the form-critical method, such as Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, openly excluded any real divine action underlying the writing of the Scriptures, Catholic historical critics like Raymond Collins and Lionel Swain have the burden of clearly showing how their stand significantly differs from the original rationalist position, which is plainly contrary to the perennial teaching of the Church. But no clear Catholic position emerges here. While acknowledging that the historical-critical method was “the child of the Enlightenment,” Collins points out that interventions of the Magisterium, such as those quoted earlier, were presented “in somewhat negative fashion.”10 For then, he continues, “the inerrant ‘truth’ of the Bible was deemed all-important,” but this approach, he says, has changed since Vatican II. However, Collins and other Catholic historical critics are simply exploiting an ambiguity in the wording of Dei Verbum 11, regarding “the truth as God wished it to be set down in the Sacred Writings for the sake of our salvation (veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit).” These scholars read the text as though it means only that truth which is aimed at our salvation, but this reading is contrary to the wording of the original, which says “the truth,” and not “that truth” (eam veritatem) and it is also contrary to the meaning, as is clearly indicated in the footnotes that the Council itself appended to these words. In fact, the footnotes of the conciliar document include references to Providentissimus Deus, exactly where it says that divine inspiration absolutely excludes any error (EB 124: cf. paragraph 9d above) and that error cannot be ascribed to the human authors as distinct from the divine Author (EB 125: cf. paragraph 9c above.) And the same footnote references include the following judgment from Providentissimus Deus: “It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration or make God the author of such error.” Hence, the opinion that biblical inerrancy covers only that truth which pertains to our salvation cannot be sustained, as is brought out in the encyclical Humani generis of Pope Pius XII (1950), where he excludes once again “the opinion, already several times condemned, according to which the immunity from errors of Sacred Writ extends only to those things which are conveyed concerning God and moral and religious matters” (see paragraph 9g above).

15. Modern empirical science has raised serious questions regarding the reading of the “days” of creation in Genesis 1, but the Magisterium, in the replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of June 30, 1909 (EB 324-331), has also clarified this in a very satisfying way, and it is by no means clear that the six creative interventions of God described in the first chapter of Genesis are at all incompatible with the findings of modern empirical science.11 Similarly, the reduction by historical critics of the story of Adam and Eve in Gen 2-3 to the level of religious fiction is not based upon solid historical reasoning. While Catholic form-critics, in using the method of Gunkel and Bultmann, do not necessarily accept all of Gunkel’s and Bultmann’s outrageous conclusions, they have been singularly inept at refuting them. Gunkel’s Genesis and Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition are insults to Catholic belief, but no noted Catholic historical critic has ever written a worthy response to either of them. The English translation of the third edition (1910) of Gunkel’s Genesis, published in 1997, can even be found on sale in Catholic book stores, mixed indiscriminately with works by solidly Catholic authors, and Bultmann is often quoted favorably in Catholic historical-critical commentaries.

16. A call for a new approach to exegesis. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a programmatic article published originally in German in 1989, and subsequently in English and then in Italian,12 called for a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma in the exegesis of Sacred Scripture through self-criticism by exegetes of the historical method that they are using.”13 The Cardinal observed that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century have virtually become academic dogmas, owing especially to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose “basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis,”14 and he found it imperative at this juncture of time to challenge the fundamental ideas of their method.15 Noting that, in the form-criticism of Bultmann and Dibelius, through the influence of Immanuel Kant, modern exegesis reduces history to philosophy, the Cardinal proposed some “basic elements of a new synthesis,” which will require “the attentive and critical commitment of an entire generation.”16 On the level of the integration of the biblical texts into their historical context, said the Cardinal, the time is ripe for a “new and thorough reflection on exegetical method,” also in the sense that biblical exegesis must come to recognize its own history as part of what it is and to learn how the philosophical element influences the process of interpretation.17 If exegesis wishes to be theology, “it must recognize that the faith of the Church is that form of sympathia without which the Bible remains a closed book.”18 To achieve this task he saw the need to introduce into the discussion “the great outlines of patristic and medieval thought,” as well as reflection upon “the fundamental judgments made by the Reformers and the critical importance they have had in the history of exegesis.”19 It is a task of the neo-patristic method, in its critical review of the historical-critical method, to formulate and correct the poorly formulated or incorrect principles of the form-critical method, to work with more clearly defined terms, and to recast the vague and largely implicit mental framework of Catholic form-criticism into an explicit framework of historical science.

17. So Cardinal Ratzinger, in his article of 1989, challenged the fundamental ideas of the form-critical method, called for a radical new reflection on exegetical method, and proposed some basic elements of a new synthesis. This would require, he said, “a return to the insights of the great believers of the past.” What we need today, he explained, is “a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself.”20 Neo-patristic scholars implement this advice in the sense that they have undertaken a process of criticism of the historical-critical method while attempting to formulate more clearly the principles of historical method itself. In this endeavor they distinguish between the valid principles of historical method in general and the many invalid principles of the “historical-critical school.” Catholic historical critics often call their method historical and scientific without defining what these words mean. In his essay quoted above, then Cardinal Ratzinger notes that “at a certain distance the observer determines to his surprise that these interpretations, which were supposed to be so strictly scientific and purely ‘historical,’ reflect their own overriding spirit, rather than the spirit of times long ago.”21 On the contrary, neo-patristic researchers seek clearly to define their terms. For instance, in my estimation, an exact defin­ition of science is “the knowledge of reality as such,” and an exact definition of historical science is “the knowl­edge of past reality as such.”22 These definitions bring to the fore the essential importance of the concept of reality in all scientific thought. In this view, historical thinking is scientific only to the extent that the historical scientist is aware of his own scientific medium of thought, including the concept of reality. Bultmann, in his own way, understood this fact, and he resorted to an equivocal use of the idea of reality by excluding all of the objects of faith from the sphere of objective reality (Realität) and leaving to religious experience only what he called the “reality” (Wirklichkeit) of the “authentically existing man.” Catholic form-critics usually do not accept this distinction, but neither do they characteristically address the problem for the Christian preacher who has eliminated everything supernatural from his faith that Bultmann, the form-critic, was facing. Neo-patristic exegetes, on the other hand, in their examination of form-critical writings, carefully consider how the writer handles the concept of reality in relation to the objects of faith and how clearly he seems to be aware of his own medium of thought.

18. The reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its document of 23 April 1993, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, presents the historical-critical method as “indispensable” for the proper understanding of Sacred Scripture: “The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts. Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the ‘Word of God in human language,’ has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them. Because of this, its proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.”23 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his Preface to the PBC’s document of 1993, points out that “there are also new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture.” And the Commission itself points out already in its “Introduction” to the document that, “at the very time when the most prevalent scientific method - the 'historical-critical method’ - is freely practiced in exegesis, it is itself brought into question,” to some extent among scholars through the rise of alternative approaches and methods, but also “through the criticisms of many members of the faithful.”

19. As an overall evaluation, the Pontifical Biblical Commission finds that the historical-critical method “is a method which, when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori. . . . For a long time now scholars have ceased combining the method with a philosophical system.”24 On the contrary, the historical-critical method is itself based on false philosophical presuppositions. Bultmann claims that the entire text of the Gospels is presented in a fictional genre, and neo-patristic scholars undertake to refute this claim, not only in general but also verse by verse. In doing so they first eliminate the rationalist presuppositions of Bultmann's method, and they then eliminate his use of these presuppositions in his exegetical works. It is interesting to note that this work of sifting and rejecting is not purely negative, because Bultmann has challenged Catholic exegetes to look more deeply into their own exegetical methods, and he has misformulated historical principles that are still waiting to be formulated correctly, as well as called attention to aspects of meaning in the sacred text that are still waiting to be properly expressed. An example of this is Bultmann's use of the subject-object relationship, which for New Testament purposes he reduces to the sheer subjectivity of the Heideggerian existential moment. By this maneuver he challenges exegetes to formulate a correct expression of the subject-object relationship with respect to historical understanding. The neo-patristic method responds to this challenge by first distinguishing two phases of objectivity: the remote objectivity of extramental reality and the proximate objectivity of mental reality. Within the mental concept of reality it locates its knowledge of the real past as its scientific historical medium, and it concentrates on and develops this historical medium as a tool for examining the historical sense of Sacred Scripture. On this point, the difference is that the neo-patristic scholar is consciously aware of his intellectual historical medium, whereas the Bultmannian is not. As a result, Bultmannians waste a lot of time supposing what was the mentality or point of view of the New Testament writers without having performed the prior task of formulating clearly their own mentality or point of view.

20. The three spiritual sub-senses are the allegorical sense, the tropological sense, and the anagogical sense. Allegory is “a sustained metaphor.” In the parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Matt 13:34), we might ask what the treasure represents as the Kingdom of God. In the allegory of Christ and his Church, the treasure represents our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, hidden prophetically in the figurative expressions of the Old Testament and announced in the mind and heart of the believer. In the tropological sense, the treasure hidden in a field is the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the holiness to be obtained through them. The anagogical, or final, sense regards the higher alle­gory of the Most Holy Trinity and the “four last things” of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. With regard to the anagogical sense, the treasure hidden in a field is the divinity hidden within the humanity of Jesus; it is Heaven itself and the vision of the Most Holy Trinity, to gain which a good person will give everything that he has in this world. The neo-patristic approach is based upon the tradition of the Fathers of the Church as continued and developed by Scholastic commentators in the Middle Ages and by traditionally-oriented modern Catholic exegetes and theologians. It works through a recognized mental frame of reference, which gives it scientific status and makes possible a new and much needed processing of raw material provided by form-critical writings.

21. I have recently published in Living Tradition an elementary analysis according to the neo-patristic approach of the four senses of the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. I began with a response to the form-critical presentations of Father (later Cardinal) Jean Daniélou and Father Raymond Brown. In his widely circulated book, The Infancy Narratives (1967), Jean Daniélou avers that Matthew’s sole purpose in his first chapter was to affirm that Joseph adopted Jesus and thus made Him a legal descendant of David. For Daniélou, Mary was not a descendant of David, and it was not Mathew’s intention to recount that Jesus was virginally conceived. Daniélou claims that the appearances of an angel to Joseph and to Mary are scenes made up by the later Christian community from passages in Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Daniel. The quotation from Isaiah 7:14, Behold a virgin shall conceive, etc., he says, has been horsed out of context, since it actually refers to Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz, and not to Jesus. In drawing this conclusion, Daniélou acknowledges his dependence upon the reasoning of Rudolf Bultmann. I have discussed the errors in this teaching of Father Daniélou in Living Tradition 130 (July 2007) and in Living Tradition 131 (September 2007), with the conclusion that, if his interpretation of Matthew 1 were correct, this would effectively eliminate the historical fact of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, which is, of course, a dogma of the Catholic Church.

22. Celebrated Catholic form-critic Father Raymond Brown (now deceased) avers that the “revelation” of the Virginal Conception of Jesus arose after the Resurrection, and he contrasts historical fact with Matthew’s “theological interest” in what he narrates. Regarding Catholic teaching on the inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, he claims that there has been “a reinterpretation but not a rejection” of these concepts in the Catholic Church (see Living Tradition 131, paragraph 4). Brown claims that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus has no historical value, and I have countered this affirmation with solid arguments taken mainly from the Fathers of the Church. In Living Tradition 131 I present five possible solutions to the historical problem of the different fathers and other ancestors of Joseph according to the genealogies of Matthew and Luke.

23. Regarding the spiritual meanings in Matthew 1, in Living Tradition 132 (November 2007), I recount some allegor­­ical and tropological meanings of the opening verse and of the names listed in the genealogy, depending mostly upon the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Fathers of the Church in his Catena Aurea and in his Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, which unfortunately, after more than seven centuries, has never been translated into English or into any other modern language. Also very useful has been the Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide.

24. In Living Tradition 133 (January 2008), I examine Father Raymond Brown’s approach to the Virginal Conception of Jesus and to the Infancy Narratives in general. According to Father Brown: “The presence of the virginal conception in the infancy narratives of the two Gospels carries no absolute guarantee of historicity,” although its historicity is guaranteed as a dogma of the Church, and, he says, “Neither infancy narrative is purely historical.”25 Again he avers that there is no real prophecy about Jesus in the entire Old Testament.26 Also, according to Father Brown, there were no real appearances of angels, as recounted in the Bible, there were no Magi, there was no flight into Egypt, no Slaughter of the Innocents, no birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, and no real journey of the Holy Family back to Nazareth. I have responded to these and other opinions of Father Brown in Living Tradition 133 (January 2008), regarding the literal sense of Matthew 1-2. In Living Tradition 134 (March 2008), I have presented “A Brief Commentary on Matthew 2 according to the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture,” suggesting, under the guidance of St. Thomas and the Fathers of the Church, a variety of spiritual meanings based upon the historical truth of the episodes and names in this chapter which form-critics have long ago relegated to the trash pile of mere fantasy. I recommend that you look at these above-mentioned issues of Living Tradition for the details of what I have discussed briefly in the present address.


1 Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 186.

2 W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957), p. 387.

3 I have given detailed examples of this failure in several issues of Living Tradition. Cf., e.g., LT 31 (Sept. 1990), LT 80-83 (March-Sept. 1999), and LT 113-115 (Sept. 2004-Jan. 2005).

4 Rome and the Study of Scripture (St. Meinrad, Indiana: Abbey Press, 1964), pp. 20-21.

5 Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici gregis (Sept. 8, 1907), in Claudia Carlen, The Papal Encyclicals (vol. 3), p. 84A.

6 The Latin text does not say eam veritatem (that truth) but simply veritatem (the truth), and so a better translation would be: “the truth as God wished it to be set down in the Sacred Scriptures for the sake of our salvation. And this difference is confirmed by the footnotes which the Fathers of the Council ordered to be attached to this sentence.

7 L. Swain, “The Inspiration of Scripture,” in R.C. Fuller et al., editors, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1969), p. 55B.

8 Swain, op. cit., p. 59, col. A.

9 Cf. R.F. Collins, “Inspiration,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, R.E. Brown et al., editors (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), p. 1028, col. B.

10 Collins, op. cit., p. 1029, col. A.

11 For a study of this question and a literal defense of the days of creation see J.F. McCarthy, “A Neo-Patristic Return to the First Four Days of Creation, in Living Tradition 45-50 (March 1993 to January 1994).

12 J. Cardinal Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” in Richard John Newhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p.17.

13 Ratzinger, ibid., pp. 5, 8.

14 Ratzinger, ibid., p. 9.

15 Ratzinger, ibid., pp. 8ff.

16 Ratzinger, ibid., pp. 16-17.

17 Ratzinger, ibid., pp. 6, 21-22.

18 Ratzinger, ibid., p. 23.

19 Ratzinger, ibid., p. 22.

20 Ratzinger, ibid., pp. 6, 16.

21 Ratzinger, ibid., p. 8.

22 See J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology: Elements of a Definition (2nd printing, Rockford, IL: TAN, 1991) pp. 34-63.

23 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, (Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) IA, first paragraph.

24 Pontifical Biblical Commission, ibid., IA, no. 4.

25 Raymond Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1973), pp. 32 and 54.

26 Cf. Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), p. 146.

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