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No. 140 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 2009



by John F. McCarthy

41. The Kantian approach. Immanuel Kant has often been acclaimed as a “creative genius” and as “one of the most important framers of the contemporary mind.”1 His influence upon the development of modern thought “can hardly be overestimated.”2 However, that this influence has been basically positive and helpful is highly questionable. For one thing, Kant’s approach is fully empirical, and thus it presents a reductive view that puts out of focus a large part of reality (no. 28 above), and it plainly violates common sense in claiming that there are no substantial things existing outside of the human mind (nos. 29-30 above). Aristotelian/Thomist epistemology has a much more realistic and satisfying approach in that it identifies extramental things as the remote object of human knowledge and the intra-mental representation of these things as the proximate object of its knowledge (nos. 31-32 above). Kant combines the materialism and mechanism of his empirical approach with an idealism centered upon the unity of the knowing subject of consciousness, from which radiates outward his whole parallel world of transcendental objects of thought that do not have reality but may be humanly important. For him some of these objects, namely, the objects of his “critical thought,” have a kind of “fictional reality” to the extent that they are not pure fantasies like what he judges the teachings of classical philosophy and traditional religion to be, since they are related in some way to the reality of sensory experience (nos. 33 and 35 above). And thus appears the “Kantian split” mentioned by Cardinal Ratzinger as the bane of modern philosophy, in particular as used in the historical-critical method (nos. 3 and 7 above).

42. Historical criticism and its 20th century development, form-criticism. The “higher criticism” of the nineteenth century and its continuation in the “historical criticism” of the twentieth century, characterized especially by the “form-criticism” of Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann, is “a child of the Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, to which Kant gave considerable contributions. As David Beck observes: “Many of the characteristics of the positions of those who deny authoritative and inerrant revelation are drawn directly from Kant. In many cases the reliance on Kant is explicit and admitted. And, while it is true that some elements of this position are prior to Kant, it seems evident that it was Kant who first put them into a coherent whole and introduced them into the mainstream of Christian (particularly German) theology.”3 And he adds (quoting Schubert Ogden) that, as far as the authority of Sacred Scripture is concerned, Kant’s fundamental distinction between theoretical and practical reason has a prominence among Protestant theologians comparable to the effect of Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between faith and reason.4 The “criticism” in these methods bears a relationship to Kant’s critical approach, even though Kant did not originate the term,5 and all of these forms of biblical exegesis are rationalistic in the sense that they do not allow for the possibility of any supernatural influence or activity in the modern understanding of the Bible.6 Hermann Gunkel, founder of the form-critical method of historical criticism, in his celebrated work, Genesis (first German edition, 1901), concentrated his attention on the history of what he saw to be the fictional forms, or literary genres (Gattungen), that constituted the text of Genesis. In this way was born the method of Formgeschichte (literally, “form-history,” but called “form-criticism” in English). Gunkel pointed out that, once one has accepted the total separation between the alternate world of faith and the real world of reason, one only needs to “understand” that the legends of Genesis belong to that alternate world. He went on to say that Jesus and his Apostles thought that the accounts of Genesis were historical events of the real world, but “they shared the opinions of their time,” and so “we may not, therefore, seek information in the New Testament concerning questions of the history of the Old Testament literature.”7 Gunkel was convinced that he, as a “modern man,” has of necessity a viewpoint that is superior to the primitive viewpoint of Jesus and his contemporaries. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical letter of November 18, 1893, had called upon Catholic scholars to rise to the defense of the truth of the Sacred Scriptures in opposition to the rationalist exegetes, “who, trusting in their turn in their own way of thinking, have rejected even the scraps and remnants of Christian belief which had been handed down to them.”8 Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was the most celebrated of five principal founders of the form-criticism of the New Testament. His History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) was an exegetical work in which he employed form-criticism seemingly to the almost total elimination of the historicity of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, leaving as a residue not much more than the man Jesus of Nazareth, who did exist, was, indeed, probably crucified, and did quite possibly enunciate a few identifiable sayings that are attributed to him in the Synoptic Gospels. Both of these founders of the form-critical method based their idea of modern man upon Kant’s thoroughgoing distinction between factual knowledge, as gained from empirical observation, and metaphysical and religious opinion, which is postulated but not known.9

43. Kant’s reductive view of history. Kant’s blending of David Hume’s empiricism with his own conception of “transcen­dental ideas” reduces the importance of testimony in the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, for Kant knowledge that is not acquired from experience of the senses is not knowledge at all (no. 22 above), although even in the natural sciences most of what people know is learned from the testimony of others, and most of those who follow his philosophy do so because they believe his teaching to be correct. And yet, according to Kant’s teaching, anything that does not represent the knowledge of sensory phenomena is only one’s own opinion or human faith in the opinions of others, and both of these have for him at best only subjective validity. (Hence, in this regard Kant seems implicitly to admit that his own critical philosophy has only subjective validity and does not constitute real knowledge.) He even claims that, since historical knowledge has no intrinsic relationship to the moral improvement of everyone, it belongs to the class of adiaphora (things neither helpful nor hurtful), which each man is free to hold as he finds edifying.10 Moreover, his reductive view of history not only excludes the reality of all external historical facts, but also leaves no room for reliable witness of historical events and the testimony thereof (no. 35 above). And this impoverished conception of history applies above all to the testimony of miracles on the part of witnesses who perceived them by sensory experience, because Kant affirms an absolutely closed system of material causation that excludes a priori any possible divine intervention into his notion of the world (no. 26 above). Hence, Kant’s system of thought rules out a priori the authority of the Bible as a record of historical facts as well as its divine inspiration and inerrancy. But this mechanistic presupposition is based upon confused notions of history and of objectivity.

44. The influence of Kantian thinking upon the form-critical method of Gunkel and Bultmann. The form-criticism of Gunkel and Bultmann is a critical approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the sense that it sets aside Christian faith and concentrates exclusively upon critical reason in the Kantian sense in order to critique the Bible. It does not consider at all the critical reasoning of traditional biblical interpretation in which the ars critica of conventional historical research is used also to certify and defend the Scriptures as well as to achieve a fuller under­stand­ing of them. The method of Gunkel and Bultmann is a modernist method in the sense that it unreasonably extols the reasoning of so-called “modern man” over the supposedly inferior thinking presented in the sacred writings. The form-criticism of Gunkel and Bultmann is also a reductive method in that it focuses exclusively upon the human side of the Bible and rules out a priori in its reasoning any divine and supernatural influence in the writing of the sacred books. It is reductive also to the extent that it puts aside the use of sound metaphysics and thus falls repeatedly into philosophical errors that only sound philosophy can adequately ascertain. To be sure, Gunkel and Bultmann do not follow Kant in explicitly assuming that the things we see do not exist outside of our own minds, but they and their followers do fall into the consequent error of using a defective subject-object model of reasoning that overlooks the formal object of human understanding and thus puts out of critical focus the very mental framework that they are using in the course of their reasoning. Finally, the “Kantian split” is functional in this form-critical method, because the aura of reality is given only to their own critical thinking, while the teaching and historical episodes of the Bible are consigned arbitrarily to a religious dream-world of myth and fancy. So why was the Bible relevant at all for Gunkel and Bultmann? They studied it, I think, not only to critique it in the Kantian sense, but also with the idea that its fiction retains an underlying existential meaning for modern Christians that is to be found on the other side of the “Kantian split” (no. 23 above).

45. The historical-critical method of Catholic form-critics. Catholic historical critics hold that “the historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts,11 and they see form-criticism as an essential phase of the historical criticism that they practice.12 The 1993 document of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission praises Hermann Gunkel, founder of form-criticism, for bringing higher criticism out of the ghetto of a literary criticism aimed simply at the dissecting and dismantling of the text of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) by his concentrating attention upon the previous history of the fanciful literary forms that he and other historical critics claimed to see there, while the same document gives credit to Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann for bringing Gunkel’s form-critical method to the Synoptic Gospels (and onward to the rest of the New Testament). The 1993 document describes the process of historical criticism as proceeding from textual criticism through form-criticism and tradition-criticism to redaction-criticism, and it avers that this type of criticism is a historical method, above all “because it seeks to shed light upon the historical processes which gave rise to the biblical text,” and it is also a critical method, “because in each of its steps it operates with the help of scientific criteria that seek to be as objective as possible.”13

46. But from another perspective, the form-criticism characteristic of Catholic historical critics is a reductive method (nos. 28-29 above) in the sense that it prescinds from the realities of Catholic faith to focus exclusively upon a four-step rationalistic process, and also inasmuch as it ignores the theological and philosophical implications of its approach to concentrate exclusively upon the phenomenological level of the inspired writings. Thus, in its 1993 document, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, regarding the historic role of Gunkel and Bultmann, focuses entirely upon the supposed knowledge of the Scriptures that they gained through the application of their rationalistic form-critical method, without adverting to the devastating impact of their exegetical work upon the objects of Catholic faith. The Commission does point out that, at the stage of redaction-criticism, the sacred text is explained with an eye to the character of the sacred text “as a message communicated by the author to his contemporaries” and to the demands of the text “from the point of view of action and life,”14 but this is aimed at the human authors alone and does not even attempt to retrieve the supernatural objects of Catholic faith from the trash-heap to which they have been consigned in the preceding stages. For instance, both Gunkel and Bultmann based their form-critical reasoning upon the presupposition that the supernatural episodes and events narrated in Sacred Scripture are merely religious fantasies resembling fairy tales for adults, and when this approach is used by Catholic exegetes, the supernatural objects of Catholic faith have been implicitly reduced to a kind of second-class reality that is not reality at all, unless the Catholic exegetes explicitly address this problem, which they seldom or never do. Since the act of Catholic faith is an affirmation of the reality of the objects of faith, including the historical truth of the events recorded in Sacred Scripture, exegetes have an inherent obligation from their faith, which pertains to their common sense in this situation, to defend this truth, as the Magisterium of the Church has often pointed out. But Catholic form-critics have characteristically shown a painful lack of aptitude or even of desire to defend this truth, and have rather coined words like “concordism” to show contempt for this needed apologetic exercise. The extensive confusion in the Catholic Church today over the meaning of Sacred Scripture is largely due to the inveterate and ongoing failure of Catholic form-critics to defend the truth of the divinely inspired Scriptures, which is being undermined by the rational­istic presuppositions of their method.

47. Some philosophical and theological implications. What about the philosophical and theological impli­cations of form-criticism? Gunkel, Bultmann, and their colleagues impressed upon the form-critical method a conception of the subject-object relationship inherited from the anti-Christian Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and particularly from the thinking of Immanuel Kant. An element of this false conception is a lack of attention to the formal object of human intelligence which constitutes the frame of reference of scientific thinking (nos. 31 and 33 above). In the natural sciences, for instance, mathe­matics provides an explicit mental frame of reference that enables reasoned thinking, and Kant allowed for some use of pure mathematics in the natural sciences (KC pp. 415 and 416), as well as for the use of logic in thinking about what he called “transcendental ideas,” but he turned the material objects of human knowledge into the formal objects, thus putting the intellectual medium, or frame of reference, out of focus and folding into subjectivity those external realities in conformity with which all truth consists. In other words, Kant limited both knowledge and understanding to the mental construction of material phenomena and thus excluded the formal principles upon which all real understanding depends. This Kantian epistemological model appears in the form-criticism of Gunkel and Bultmann as follows. They both base their critiques upon Kant’s empirical approach as they extol “the outlook of modern scientific man” over the supposedly “primitive” and “pre-scientific” thinking of the human authors of the Bible. This supposed “modern outlook” is barren, not only of needed philosophical and theological principles, but even of common sense. For Gunkel and Bultmann, “biblical science” is located in the results of their reductive criticism, except that, whereas rationalists in general reject the Bible outright as a product of superstition, Gunkel and Bultmann see a valid reason for Christians to study the Bible, and this is the “permissible fiction” that survives the Kantian critique (no. 35 above). Kant rejected the Bible as such, but he allowed for some subjective religious thinking, and this opened the door to empiricists like Gunkel and Bultmann to take it up from there, as they attempt to “save” Christian faith by reducing its meaning to the subjective experience of modern man. For them, modern thinking is empirical thinking with allowance for some subjective religious thinking along Kantian lines, so that some thoroughly critiqued religious thoughts are allowed to survive subjectively as a human aspiration, although they always remain fictitious and unscientific. For Bultmann, this permissible subjective experience is existential in the sense that it is devoid of all formal objectivity and all truth, being limited to the self-consciousness of the knowing subject as such, but, in the operation of his form-criticism, this subjective experience is a resort that is out of sight and merely potential.

48. Reality and Catholic faith. Kant distinguished between sensory reality as immediately perceived and reasoned non-reality, which he characterized as a kind of reduced and fictional validity of reason to the extent that it was critical enough for him. Bultmann, over and beyond his form-critical work, used this same idea of the Kantian split, but he used it in a somewhat different way: he distinguished between the objective reality of empirical science and the subjective reality of “the authentically existing man.” To express this distinction he used two German words: Realität for the objects of empirical science, and Wirklichkeit for the “authentic” consciousness of self. On the contrary, for a Thomist, to think scientifically means to have a univocal and clearly defined concept of the one univocal reality into which the various objects of thought either fit or do not fit. The essential concept of all valid science is the continuum of reality, as it is first recognized by common sense, or common science, and then refined by technical science. The supernatural gift of faith infused at baptism provides an intuition of the reality of the objects of faith as they are situated within this one continuum of reality, in such wise that to doubt the univocal reality of these objects of faith is a sin against faith. The objects of Catholic faith include things like the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the reality of Heaven and Hell, of the human rational soul, of sanctifying grace as an entitative quality of the soul, and of many other things, including the historical reality of the events recorded in the Bible. Catholics believe that the historical facts recorded in the Bible cannot conflict with facts established by the natural sciences, but, where an apparent conflict occurs, Catholics do have an obligation to ascertain whether or not the affirmed fact of natural science is based upon solid proof, and to defend the truths of their faith against the frequently biased thinking of natural scientists and historians. This has been the constant tradition of the Catholic Church from the time of her founding. Now, since science can be defined as “certified knowledge of real things,” to believe the objects of Catholic faith is to have common scientific knowledge in the fuller meaning of the term, whereas the presuppositions of Kant’s critical method, by his very definition of terms, take the objects of Catholic faith and the teaching of the Bible out of the category of certified knowledge, so as to leave them in the realm of subjectivity and of merely aesthetic value. But the rationalist presuppositions of the form-critical method of Gunkel and Bultmann do the very same thing. To achieve this, they rule out the “big picture” of science in favor of a reductive approach that reflects the mechanism and empiricism of Kant. Now, Catholic form-critics, in using this method, do not characteristically deny the objects of Catholic faith; they keep them in mind, not functionally, but only through a dualism of two opposing systems, of which the form-criticism is in focus and the Catholic teaching is in the background. Their form-criticism they call “scientific exegesis,” while Catholic faith and traditional Catholic philosophy and theology are reductively excluded from the status of being “scientific.”15 But, since Catholic faith pertains to the common sense underpinning the “big picture” of historical reality (no. 32 above), Catholic biblical interpretation should be synthesized with this and with the established principles of Catholic philosophy and theology, but form-critics have never carried out this task.

49. Is form-criticism scientific and objective? Catholic form-critics maintain that form-criticism is a critical method, because “it operates with the help of scientific criteria that seek to be as objective as possible” (no. 45 above). But what do they mean by “scientific,” and what do they mean by “objective.” It seems that by “scientific” they mean reduced to the level of phenomena only, where the text of Sacred Scripture is viewed as a mere phenomenon, and its divine and supernatural characteristics are kept non-functional and out of view. And by "historical" they seem to mean the assumption that the historical testimony in the sacred text is basically fictitious (with some underlying historicity) and the result of religious fantasy, as Gunkel and Bultmann presuppose in keeping with the rationalism of their approach. But this is not a historical approach in the true sense of the word. For instance, when Catholic form-critics aver that there was no miraculous holding back of the waters of the Red Sea, as reported in Exodus, or that Jesus did not miraculously multiply the loaves and the fish, they are shocking the faith of Christian believers without any historical proof, because the only evidence that they have for these assertions is the rationalist presupposition that these nature-miracles could not have occurred. And this is turning historical science into unscientific philosophy. Thus William Foxwell Albright, a competent historian, observed in 1957 that form-critics “have pushed their research out in increasingly subjective directions” and that “vicious circles are evident throughout their work,” and he went on to point out that “from the standpoint of the objective historian data cannot be disproved by criticism of the accidental literary framework in which they occur, unless there are solid independent reasons for rejecting the historicity of an appreciable number of other data found in the same framework.”16 By way of summary, he remarked: “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.”17 Similarly, the original Pontifical Biblical Commission, in an instruction of 21 April 1964, invited Catholic exegetes to investigate “what sound elements there might be in the form-critical method” amidst the “unacceptable philosophical and theological principles” that it contains (EB 647).

50. Some presuppositions of the form-critical method itself. The 1993 document of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission avers that the historical-critical method (including form-criticism) “is a method which, when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori,” although, when used together with some a priori principles not pertaining to the method itself but to certain hermeneutical choices governing the interpretation, this can be “tendentious.”18 The example given of such tendentious interpretation is that of Rudolf Bultmann, who “combined form-critical studies with a biblical hermeneutic inspired by the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger.”19 In saying this, the PBC overlooks two things. The first is that Bultmann did not use the existentialism of Heidegger in his classic History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), with which he brought form-criticism to the interpretation of the Gospels. It was about twenty years later, in an effort to provide some justification for Christian belief in the wake of the devastation that his form-criticism had produced, that he used the existentialist philosophy of Heidegger. And the second thing is that Bultmann did in his pre-Heideggerian form-critical work, and all other form-critics did and do now use philosophical and methodological presuppositions in their form-critical reasoning, some of which are the following:

a. Rationalism: Sound epistemology and the supernatural realities of Christian faith are excluded from the method.

b. False historical method: Historical science deals with what has taken place, not with what the historian presupposes could or could not have taken place. Form-criticism presupposes that no miraculous events have ever taken place. Catholic form-critics do not affirm that no miracles have ever happened; they dualistically let their faith restrain them from drawing some of the conclusions to which form-criticism naturally leads. Bultmann has taunted believing form-critics about this, saying: “Once you begin to use the method, where can you draw the line?” Catholic form-critics have never presented a worthy answer to this challenge.

c. Circular argumentation: Form-critics draw conclusions that are already presupposed in their thinking. For instance, their conclusions that Jesus did not really work this or that miracle are based only on the presupposition that miracles do not occur. Bultmann admits this where he says: “It is essential to realize that form-criticism is fundamentally indistinguishable from all historical work in this, that it has to move in a circle. The forms of the literary tradition must be used to establish the influences operating in the life of the community, and the life of the community must be used to render the forms themselves intelligible.”20 Bultmann shows here a false concept of historical method, inasmuch as he tries to derive historical facts from a sociological concept (the Sitz-im-Leben of Hermann Gunkel).

d. Drawing conclusions from internal indications alone: Form-critics can argue forever about what they conclude from the comparison of texts of Sacred Scripture, while ignoring possibilities, or even likelihoods, when these indications do not lead in the direction that they have chosen.

e. A double concept of reality. What is the purpose of form-criticism to begin with? Non-believers can debunk the Scriptures in the name of “science” just for their own amusement, but the ultimate alleged purpose of form-criticism is to help Christian believers to discover some value for them in a debunked Bible, and the concept that its founders chose for this purpose was Kant’s idea of “permissible fiction.” Without this dualism, form-criticism would be totally destructive, seeing that throughout its development every new “discovery” of a seeming error or contradiction in the Scriptures has been considered a step forward for the method, and every case where the historicity survived has been viewed as a temporary snag waiting to be overcome. Form-criticism aims to help the Christian believer to discover, not only that the episodes of the Scriptures are fictitious, but also that his own Christian illusions, even though they are not real in a univocal sense, still have some value.

f. Use of poorly defined terms. The vagueness of terms among the founders of form-criticism is redoubled among Catholic form-critics. Words like scientific, historical, objective, and literary form are immersed in ambiguity, while analysis of the word reality, which is the central concept of all science, hardly occurs at all.

g. Other presuppositions. Catholic form-critics use other unhistorical presuppositions, such as presuming that simpler descriptions in the sacred text are older and that biblical episodes or locutions repeated in the text with some contrasting differences could not actually have occurred more than once.

51. Defense of the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. The 1964 instruction of the original Pontifical Biblical Commission implies that Catholic exegetes are obliged to remain aware in their mental frame of reference, not only of the objects of Catholic faith, but also of sound Catholic philosophical and theological principles, things which the form-critical method systematically excludes. Pope Pius XII had pointed out in 1943 in Divino afflante Spiritu, in reaffirming the perennial teaching of the Church, that Catholic interpreters should strive to “refute the objections of adversaries” and seek regarding difficult problems “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 in a fitting way the certain conclusions of the profane disciplines” (EB 564).

52. Jean Levie. As a group, Catholic form-critics have not lived up to these requirements. For instance, Jean Levie, in his well-known book of 1958 on the rise of the form-critical method, develops the idea that the Bible is “the word of God in the words of men.”21 To present this development he takes the usual reductive approach of form-criticism in the sense that he presents the interpretation of the Bible only as the words of men without ever getting around to the Bible as the word of God, which is presumed but is totally non-functional. Levie brings out the dualism employed by Catholic form-critics where he conjectures that the encyclical letter Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII did not stress the condemnation of the “theory of the two-fold truth” (relative, not absolute) of Sacred Scripture as much as the preceding encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus of Pope Benedict XV did, and this, he says, seemed to open the way to the theory of fictional genres of form-criticism, that is, to an interpretation in which biblical accounts are expounded “in keeping not with the reality of the facts, but with what popular contemporary opinion said on a subject.”22 Levie goes on to say: “God speaks to us through a real man, as he was in his world and in his own age. Any literary form, as long as it is intrinsically moral, can convey the divine message.”23 So a myth or a fictitious story, presented as a historical account, can convey a divine message which is morally true, and this is precisely the idea of the merely relative truth whose standing condemnation had, in fact, been repeated in 1950 by Pius XII in his encyclical letter Humani generis, where he says: “They even wrongly speak of the human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden” (EB 612). In other words, Catholic form-critics maintain that the historical truth regarding these biblical accounts resides, not in the accounts themselves, but rather in the conclusions of form-criticism.

53. The divine message. Now, rationalist form-critics like Gunkel and Bultmann deny that there is any real divine message in the Bible, while Catholic form-critics do believe, in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church, that there is a divine message, although they do not find this message in their form-critical work as such (no. 45 above), and their aversion to philosophizing about their method is universal enough that I have never seen an example where a form-critic attempted to show how the objects of Catholic faith share a univocal reality with the conclusions of their form-critical system. In fact, the Kantian split is evident in their work, as they call “scientific” the human and natural objects of their thought, while the objects of faith are left in the twilight zone of an official but, nevertheless, prescientific doctrine different, but not clearly distinct, from the fancy that they attribute to the biblical narratives themselves. What I am saying is that whatever degree of reality is left in the form-critical process to the supernatural objects of faith has never been an object of concerted apologetic defense on the part of Catholic form-critics, and they have never, to my knowledge, presented a tenable answer to the rationalism inherent in their system. And so they are left with a radical dualism of “scientific” form-critical reality and aesthetically appealing but prescientific religious belief.

54. Jean Daniélou on the Virginal Conception. Catholic form-critics can make into objects of prayer and belief the very scenes that they have “scientifically” eliminated from historical reality. For instance, Jean Daniélou, following form-critical reasoning, claims that the scenes in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke are fabrications built mainly on sayings and scenes of the Old Testament. Thus, for example, he avers that angels are imaginary literary devices of the Old Testament, and the annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary is an imaginary midrash on Isaiah 9 in which, for instance, the expression, “Hail, full of grace . . .” is a phrase borrowed from Zeph 3:14-17, or Dan 9:21-27, and placed on the lips of this imaginary angel. Similarly taken from different places in the Old Testament are the words depicted as having been spoken by the angel, namely, “fear not, Mary …, - ” “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father …,” - “the Holy Spirit will come upon you,” and “the power of the most High will overshadow you,” while two other phrases in the angel’s discourse were invented by Luke himself or by the Christian circles of his time to express their belief in the divinity of Jesus, namely, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the most High” and “therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”24 Now, having totally destroyed the historicity of the biblical account of the annunciation to Mary, Daniélou goes on to affirm that the Virginal Conception of Mary in this story, as also in the episode of the appearance of an angel to Joseph in Matt 1:20, “rests on a historical basis,” and “is a historical account which takes (the Virginal Conception) for granted,” because it “is an element in a tradition that antedates them both.”25 But this resort to the historical reality of a prior tradition has no evidence of historicity apart from the episodes claimed by Daniélou to be fictions produced by a story-making Christian community, and so Daniélou’s claim that the Virginal Conception of Mary is “historical” only reveals the dualism in his approach, whereby one can believe a historical event to be true as long as he does not oppose the form-critical conclusion that it is not. And this is how Catholic form-critics can deny “scientifically” the historical truth upon which this object of faith is based, and even denounce as “concordists” those who defend its historicity, and still, for example, pray the Angelus and the joyful mysteries of the Rosary, repeating over and over again in devout reverence the very scenes and words whose historical truth they have eliminated in their form-critical work. There are numerous other examples of this resort, which illustrates the fact that Catholic form-critics need to revise a confused epistemology which transcendentally unites the supposed form-critical reality with a form of pseudo-Christian make-believe.

55. Raymond Brown on the Virginal Conception. In his widely circulated book, The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus,26 Father Raymond Brown, as a form-critical biblical scholar, concludes that the Gospels “are not simply factual reporting of what happened in Jesus’ ministry but are documents of faith written to show the significance of those events as seen with hindsight.”27 He affirms that “the presence of the Virginal Conception in the infancy narratives of two Gospels carries no absolute guarantee of historicity,”28 considering also that “modern Protestant and Catholic scholars are in surprising agreement on the generally figurative and non-historical character of the infancy narratives.”29 As a believing Catholic, Brown accepts the Virginal Conception of Jesus as an object of faith, but, as a form-critic, he doubts whether the Virginal Conception is a biological fact.30 Brown admits that “if the christology associated with Virginal Conception was known [by Jesus, by the Virgin Mary, and by others] from the first moments of Jesus’ earthly career, the whole critical theory falls apart.” It is Brown’s opinion that Matthew’s infancy narrative “is redolent of the folkloric and imaginative,” while Luke’s narrative does not reflect “the atmosphere of purely historical reporting.”31 This judgment is guided by the naturalism of the form-critical school and by the Kantian split. It is only on the basis of an a priori exclusion of real divine interventions that Matthew’s narrative seems folkloric and imaginative, and it is only on the basis of an a priori exclusion of divinely inspired writing that goes beyond the capabilities of contemporary human historians that Luke’s account does not seem to reflect “the atmosphere of purely historical reporting.” Regarding the Virginal Conception of Jesus as a biological fact, it is Brown’s studied conclusion that “the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem.”32 This brings up a bigger unresolved problem. What is “scientifically controllable evidence,” and what is “purely historical reporting”? Catholic form-critics like to call their work “scientific,” but they do not seem to be working with an adequate concept either of science or of historical method (see no. 49 above). All true science is organized around a clear and highly differentiated concept of reality, whereas, in the dualism of Catholic form-criticism, the objects of Catholic faith are left in an undefined real or unreal world of religious belief, and what does this belief have to do with biological fact? Similarly, true historians deal with everything that has happened; they do not, like Bultmann and his school, presuppose that much of what is reported in the infancy narratives and in the rest of the Gospels could not really have happened. The assumption that the perception of miraculous facts having a supernatural meaning has to be imaginary or folkloristic is contrary to the fundamental principles of historical science, for historical science knows that historical meaning, while it is conceptually distinct from bare historical fact, is not separate from it. Brown’s separation of Gospel doctrine from the historical facts in which it is embedded is, therefore, unscientific. Hence, when he wonders how the Church’s connatural insight into divine revelation could apply to “a question of biological fact,” he is separating this dogma from historical fact and unscien­tifically reducing it to the level of a theolo­goumenon. Brown maintains, as do Daniélou and virtually all form-critics, that the appearances of an angel to Mary in Luke 1 and to Joseph in Matt 1 are mere literary forms developed to convey the underlying idea of a Virginal Conception.33 This means that there were no real appearances of an angel and there were no historical annunciations at all, but the idea of a Virginal Conception did arise, and this, he says, needs to be accounted for. He reasons that the idea was probably not derived from pagan religious beliefs or from Old Testament stories, but he fails to consider and refute the resultant implication in the form-critical method that the early Christians could simply have made up the story on their own with no basis in historical reality and without any suggestion from other traditions, and so he actually gives no effective defense of this belief.

56. A few general conclusions. Among others, the following general conclusions may be drawn concerning the use by Catholic Scripture scholars of the form-critical method.

a. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger observed in 1988, historical criticism uses the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

b. Catholic form-critics are largely unaware of the philosophical presup­positions of their method.

c. Catholic form-critics do not consciously subscribe to the anti-religious outlook of the Enlightenment or the anti-Christian outlook of Immanuel Kant, enshrined in his Critique of Pure Reason and even more explicitly in his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, but Catholic form-critics do dualistically (even if unwittingly) subscribe to Kant’s reductive definition of science, as limited to the phenomenal level of objectivity and to the human level of Sacred Scripture, which they hold in tandem with but not synthesized with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

d. Catholic form-critics follow the epistemology of Immanuel Kant in the sense that they use a concept of the subject-object relationship in which the formal object, which includes the objects of faith on the level of common science and Catholic philosophy and theology on the level of technical science, has been put out of focus. As a result, in their use of the form-critical method, as Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in 1988, they do not pay sufficient attention to the established principles of Catholic philosophy and theology, nor are they sufficiently critical of their own mental frame of reference.

e. The technical terms and historical techniques used by Catholic form-critics are imprecise and inaccurate.

f. The rationalist flavor of the form-critical method inhibits Catholic form-critics from trying hard enough to preserve the historicity of biblical accounts or to understand the deeper meanings of the sacred text.

g. The moralizing goal which constitutes a claimed positive purpose of form-critical interpretation is based on the subjectivist and existentialist side of the Kantian split.

The end of this three-part series


1 W. David Beck, “Agnosticism: Kant,” in Norman L. Geisler, Ed., Biblical Errancy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1981), p. 53.

2 William Turner, History of Philosophy (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1903), p. 547.

3 Beck, ibid., p. 72.

4 Beck, ibid., p. 76.

5 The so-called “critical” approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, now known as “historical criticism,” was brought into focus in 1678 by Richard Simon, a converted Catholic priest, when he published what he called a “critical history” of the Old Testament. He called his work a “critical history,” because he subjected the text of the Old Testament to what he considered to be the “critical judgment” of his human reason.

6 The word rationalism has as a secondary meaning “the doctrine that knowledge comes from the intellect in itself without aid from the senses.” But I am using the word here as meaning “the principle or practice of accepting reason as the only authority in determining one’s opinions or course of action” (Webster’s New College Dictionary (2007). The German Illuminist H.S. Reimarus (died 1768), was the founder of rationalism as an explicit and self-styled approach to the systematic interpretation of Sacred Scripture with his Apologia for the Rational Worshippers of God.

7 Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (English trans.: Macon Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1997), p. viii. For a detailed analysis of Gunkel’s approach to form-criticism see J.F. McCarthy, “Rationalism in the Historical-Criticism of Hermann Gunkel” at

8 Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 2, in Claudia Carlen ed., The Papal Encyclicals (McGrath Publishing Co.), vol. 2, p. 326.

9 Cf. Beck, ibid., p. 54.

10 I. Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Religion (English trans.: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 65, footnote.

11 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), p. 34. Note that the term “historical criticism” has become somewhat ambiguous inasmuch as, while it applies originally to the successors of the “higher criticism” of the 19th century, it is being used sometimes to mean in general the critical method of all sound historical research. For this reason I have concentrated this discussion on the form-critical phase of historical criticism as it is being practiced by Catholic historical critics.

12 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, pp. 37-38.

13 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, pp. 36-37.

14 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, p. 38.

15 The same reductive notion of science has overflown even into official Catholic magisterial statements, in which a contrast is sometimes made between faith and science, philosophy and science, or theology and science. The correct distinction should be between these other sciences and empirical science.

16 W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1957), pp. 381-382.

17 Albright, ibid., p.387.

18 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, p. 39.

19 PBC, ibid., p. 36.

20 R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (English trans. of the 3rd German ed., 1958: Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1963), p. 5.

21 J. Levie, La Bible, parole humaine et message de Dieu (Paris-Louvaine, 1958); English translation: The Bible, Word of God in Words of Men (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1961). For a fuller review, see “Jean Levie and the Biblical Movement” at

22 Levie, ibid., p. 146, note 7.

23 Levie, ibid., p. 167.

24 J. Daniélou, The Infancy Narratives, translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968) – (original edition: Les Evangiles de l’Enfance (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1967), pp. 33-37. For a fuller review, see

25 Daniélou, op. cit., pp. 41-42.

26 R. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1973). For a fuller review, see Living Tradition 133 (January 2008) on the internet at

27 Brown, Virginal Conception, p. 17.

28 Brown, Virginal Conception, p. 32.

29 Brown, Virginal Conception, p. 52.

30 Brown, Virginal Conception, p. 37.

31 Brown, Virginal Conception, pp. 53-54.

32 Brown, Virginal Conception, p. 66. Brown affirms the doctrine where he says: “In Roman Catholic theology, according to the usual criteria, the Virginal Conception would be classified as a doctrine infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium,” but he questions the doctrine where he goes on to say: “The Virginal Conception under its creedal title of ‘virgin birth’ is not primarily a biological statement, and therefore one must make a judgment about the extent to which the creedal affirmation is inextricably attached to the biological presupposition” (R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah [Garden City: Doubleday, 1977], p. 529).

33 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 521-522.

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