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 75 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 1998


by Msgr. John F. McCarthy

        The following is the text of an address delivered in Rome on 6 June 1998
        at a convocation sponsored by the Roman Theological Forum.


       1. The reformed Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its document of 23 April 1993, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (henceforth to be referred to also as IBC), 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."1 Nevertheless, the Commission 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 criticism of many members of the faithful," some of whom maintain that "nothing is gained by submitting biblical texts to the demands of scientific method," and who insist that "the result of scientific exegesis is only to provoke perplexity and doubt upon numerous points which hitherto had been accepted without difficulty." And some of these, adds the Commission, turn their backs upon all study and "advocate a so-called 'spiritual' reading of the Bible, by which they understand a reading guided solely by personal inspiration - one that is subjective - and intended only to nourish such inspiration."

       2. The document of the Commission summarizes "the whole series of different stages characteristic of the historical-critical method," and these stages are: "from textual criticism one progresses to literary criticism, with its work of dissection in the quest for sources; then one moves to a critical study of forms and, finally, to an analysis of the editorial process, which aims to be particularly attentive to the text as it has been put together." In fine, the document avers: "All this has made it possible to understand far more accurately the intention of the authors and editors of the Bible, as well as the message which they addressed to their first readers. The achievement of these results has lent the historical-critical method an importance of the highest order" (IBC, IA.1).

       3.As an overall evaluation, the Commission finds that the historical-critical method "is a method which, when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori. ... Oriented, in its origins, towards source criticism and the history of religions, the method has managed to provide fresh access to the Bible. ... This method has contributed to the production of works of exegesis and of biblical theology which are of great value. For a long time now scholars have ceased combining the method with a philosophical system. ... We must take care not to replace the historicizing tendency, for which the older historical-critical exegesis is open to criticism, with the opposite excess, that of neglecting history in favor of an exegesis which would be exclusively synchronic. To sum up, the goal of the historical-critical method is to determine, particularly in a diachronic manner, the meaning expressed by the biblical authors and editors. Along with other methods and approaches, the historical-critical method opens up to the modern reader a path to the meaning of the biblical text, such as we have it today" (IBC, IA.4).

       4. In its document of 1993, the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission notes that the Fathers of the Church "have a foundational role in relation to the living tradition which unceasingly accompanies and guides the Church's reading and interpretation of Scripture." The Fathers, it points out, "look upon the Bible above all as the Book of God, the single work of a single author," although they do not "reduce the human authors to nothing more than passive instruments," because "they are quite capable, also, of according to a particular book its own specific purpose." Nevertheless, "their type of approach pays scant attention to the historical development of revelation." The Fathers, it goes on to say, "had recourse fairly frequently to the allegorical method. But they rarely abandoned the literalness and historicity of texts. ... In principle, there is nothing in it which is to be set aside as out of date or completely lacking in meaning." In conclusion, "The allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today. But the experience of the Church expressed in this exegesis makes a contribution that is always useful" (IBC, IIIB.2).

       5. The document of 1993 defines the spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture as "the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life which flows from it," and the Commission avers that "this context truly exists." Again, "While there is a distinction between the two senses, the spiritual sense can never be stripped of its connection with the literal sense. The latter remains the indispensable foundation. ... But it is also necessary that there be a transition to a higher level of reality. ... The spiritual sense results from setting the text in relation to real facts which are not foreign to it: the paschal event, in all its inexhaustible richness, which constitutes the summit of the divine intervention in the history of Israel, to the benefit of all mankind" (IBC, IIB.2). According to the document, "Ancient exegesis, which obviously could not take into account modern scientific requirements, attributed to every text of Scripture several levels of meaning. Medieval exegesis distinguished within the spiritual sense three different aspects, each relating, respectively, to the truth revealed, to the way of life commended and to the final goal to be achieved. ... In reaction to this multiplicity of senses, historical-critical exegesis adopted, more or less overtly, the thesis of the one single meaning. All the effort of historical-critical exegesis goes into defining 'the' precise sense of this or that biblical text seen within the circumstances in which it was produced." But the authors of the document declare that they are now open to a multi-sense approach: "But this thesis has now run aground on the conclusions of theories of language and of philosophical hermeneutics, both of which affirm that written texts are open to a plurality of meaning" (IBC, IIB).

       6. 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 Pope John Paul II, in his address of acceptance of this document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, avers that "The Catholic exegete does not entertain the individualist illusion leading to the belief that one can better understand the biblical texts outside the community of believers," and he goes on to say: "It is comforting to note that recent studies in hermeneutical philosophy have confirmed this point of view and that exegetes of various confessions have worked from similar perspectives by stressing, for example, the need to interpret each biblical text as part of the scriptural canon recognized by the Church, or by being more attentive to the contributions of patristic exegesis."2

       7. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that "since Sacred Scripture is also to be read and interpreted in the same Spirit by whom it was written, in order correctly to derive the meaning of the sacred texts, no less diligently must attention be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, account having been taken of the living Tradition of the entire Church and of the analogy of faith" (DV, 12). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in expounding these three rules of the Council for the correct interpretation of Sacred Scripture - attention to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, to living Tradition, and to the analogy of faith - defines the 'analogy of faith' as "the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation" (CCC, 114), and the Catechism adds in this place, by way of explanation of these three rules, a brief exposition of the four-senses approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. It says: "According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church" (CCC, 115). After briefly describing and summarizing these four senses, the Catechism immediately cites the same paragraph 12 of Dei Verbum to the effect that "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment" (CCC, 119).

       8. The neo-Patristic approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture is based upon the tradition of the four senses, initiated by the Fathers of the Church, developed to a degree by medieval exegetes and theologians, and now on the threshold of its full flowering after centuries of neglect in modern times. And neo-Patristic exegetes and theologians take this teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, together with various other statements of the Magisterium of the Church, not only as an encouragement, but even as a mandate to work toward a fuller expression of this approach. for the greater utility of the Church and the needs of the times, keeping always in mind that all of the things said by the Second Vatican Council and reported in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the proper manner of interpreting Sacred Scripture "are ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church" (DV, 12). In the act of approving the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that it "is a statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium," and he declared it to be "a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion."3 The Biblical Commission's 1993 document on the interpretation of the Bible in the Church is a far-reaching study that was joyfully accepted by Pope John Paul II as the fruit of a collegial work undertaken at the initiative of Cardinal Ratzinger4 and constitutes a very useful source for understanding what many Catholic exegetes think today about their specialized work. However, as Cardinal Ratzinger points out in his Preface to this document, "The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its new form after the Second Vatican Council, is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office." We may say that the document represents an imperfect consensus of the scholars who composed it regarding the state of Catholic exegesis today, emphasizing what they consider to be the supreme importance of the historical-critical method while attempting to be as open as possible to other methods and approaches, and it is with this understanding that I shall continue to cite the document in this essay.

       9. Literary genres. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the importance of recognizing literary genres: "In finding out the intention of the sacred writers, among other things literary genres must also be taken into account, because truth is set forth and expressed in different ways in texts distinctly historical, or prophetic, or poetic, or in other forms of speaking. Furthermore, it is needful that the interpreter seek out the meaning which the sacred writer, in the concrete circumstances and conditions of his time and culture, with the aid of the literary genres used at that time, intended to express and did express" (DV, 12). Both the papal address of acceptance and the PBC document itself refer back to the teaching of Divino afflante Spiritu in this regard. As the Biblical Commission puts it: "According to Divino afflante Spiritu, the search for the literal sense of Scripture is an essential task of exegesis and, in order to fulfill this task, it is necessary to determine the literary genre of texts (cf. EB, 560), something which the historical-critical method helps to achieve" (IBC, IA.4). To cite the words of Pope Pius XII: "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. ... 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. ... For of the modes of expression which, among ancient peoples, and especially those of the East, human language used to express its thought, none is excluded from the Sacred Books, provided the way of speaking adopted in no wise contradicts the holiness and truth of God .... For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things "except sin" (Heb 4:15), so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error. ... Hence the Catholic commentator, in order to comply with the present needs of biblical studies, in explaining the Sacred Scripture and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from all error, should also make a prudent use of this means, determine, that is, to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the sacred writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation; and let him be convinced that this part of his office cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis. Not infrequently - to mention only one instance - when some persons reproachfully charge the Sacred Writers with some historical error or inaccuracy in the recording of the facts, on closer examination it turns out to be nothing else than those customary modes of expression and narration peculiar to the ancients, which used to be employed in the mutual dealings of social life and which in fact were sanctioned by common usage."5

       10. The neo-Patristic method, in contrast with the historical-critical method, takes note that the literary genres mentioned in such documents of the Magisterium as Divino afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum endorse expressly only the presence in the Scriptures of such analytical literary genres as those historical, juridical, poetic, didactic, prophetic, and, therefore, takes the time and effort to reexamine in the light of Catholic exegetical tradition and in terms of an adequate critical apparatus the novel and unorthodox approach to literary genres taken by such founders of the historical-critical method as Johannes Weiss, Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, M. Albertz, and G. Bertram, because neo-Patristic exegetes are convinced that the critical writings of these liberal Protestant exegetes have not been properly analyzed up to now. For example, Rudolf Bultmann, in his History of the Synoptic Tradition (HST), which has been probably the most influential contribution to the historical-critical method in the entire twentieth century,6 through a form-critical analysis of what he calls literary genres, arrives at seven stages in the rise of the "gospel genre": the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the addition of the passion and Easter narratives; the introduction of sacraments; the creation of miracle-stories; the elaboration of apophthegms and other sayings of Jesus; the combining of the sayings with the kerygma to form a unity; and the insertion of exhortations and congregational regulations (HST, 348-350). The neo-Patristic method critically examines the analytical validity and historical use of these form-critical genres.

       11. Bultmann uses the word `apophthegms' to mean "sayings of Jesus set in a brief context" (HST, 11), and he divides them into `controversy dialogues,' `scholastic dialogues,' and `biographical apophthegms' (HST, 12-39). He concludes that "controversy dialogues are all of them imaginary scenes" (HST, 40), having their Sitz im Leben, not in the life of Jesus, but "in the discussions the Church had with its opponents, and as certainly within itself, on questions of law" (HST, 41). Again, he finds that "the outlook of the early Church could be clothed in the form of a scholastic dialogue as easily as in the form of a controversy dialogue" (HST, 54). The `biographical apophthegms' are for Bultmann "narrative scenes in which the hero makes a statement especially revealing his character,"7 and he concludes that "finally we may say quite generally: a biographical apophthegm from its very nature is not an historical report - and that applies to Jesus as much as to any other historical personality" (HST, 57). He lists about a hundred shorter passages in the Synoptic Gospels which embody `logia,' that is, `wisdom-sayings,' placed on the lips of Jesus (HST, 73-79). He grants that "here if anywhere we can find what is characteristic of the preaching of Jesus," but he cautions as well that "it must also be seen that many a saying owes its reception into the tradition only to its suitability for a specific sphere of the Church's interests," and, therefore, "it will only be in very few cases that one of the logia can be ascribed to Jesus with any measure of confidence" (HST, 105). `Prophetic sayings' are "those in which Jesus announces the coming of the Kingdom of God,"8 and they include the genres of `preaching about salvation,' `minatory sayings,' `admonitions,' and `apocalyptic predictions' (HST, 108-125). Bultmann questions "whether it was originally intended to ascribe such prophetic sayings to Jesus," since "they could very easily have gained currency at first as utterances of the Spirit in the Church," and "the Church drew no distinction between such utterances by Christian prophets and the sayings of Jesus in the tradition"HST, 127-128). The `I-sayings' are sayings "where the person of Jesus plays a substantial part" (HST, 152). It is Bultmann's conclusion that "the `I-sayings' were predominantly the work of the Hellenistic Churches, though a beginning had already been made in the Palestinian Church. Here too Christian prophets filled by the Spirit spoke in the name of the ascended Lord sayings like Rev. 16:15" (HST, 163).

       12. Apart from `apophthegms' and `dominical sayings,' a third great category of Bultmann's investigations regards `miracle stories.' He acknowledges that "miracles were certainly ascribed to Jesus in the Palestinian Church," but "the Hellenistic miracle stories offer such a wealth of parallels to the Synoptic, particularly in style, as to create a prejudice in favour of supposing that the Synoptic miracle stories grew up on Hellenistic ground" (HST, 239-240). By `legends' are meant "those parts of the tradition which are not miracle stories int the proper sense, but instead of being historical in character are religious and edifying." Bultmann does not deny that historical happenings may underlie legends," but they are "unhistorical" in the sense that "they are not, in the modern sense, historical accounts at all" (HST, 244). He finds that their `literary character' is such that "one has to assume their formation in a more developed form of Christianity than the Palestinian Church attained - apart, that is, from Q's narrative of the Temptation" (HST, 303). It seems clear to him that the legend of the "Virgin Birth" [Virginal Conception] must be assumed to have been derived from the pagan Hellenistic environment (HST, 304), but other legends, such as the Easter stories, "have grown up within the Christian tradition itself," and their origin is to be sought "in Christian faith and Christian worship, or alternatively in the unconscious tendency to depict the life of Jesus from the standpoint of faith and of cultic ideas" (HST, 305). As an overall conclusion, Bultmann points out that, after the "traditional picture of Jesus has been dissolved, principally by the investigations of Wrede and Wellhausen," form-critical analysis continues the process and "comes at first to the negative conclusion that the outline of the gospels does not enable us to know either the outer course of the life of Jesus or his inner development." Bultmann frankly confesses that "the character of Jesus as a human personality cannot be recovered by us."9 Consequently, "the Christ who is preached is not the historic Jesus, but the Christ of the faith and the cult," while "the kerygma of Christ is cultic legend and the Gospels are expanded cult legends." Furthermore, he concludes, the "Christ myth" gives to the Gospel of Mark "a unity based upon the myth of the kerygma," while in the Gospel of John "the myth has completely violated the historical tradition" (HST, 370-371).

       13. Presuppositions. The form-critical analysis of Rudolf Bultmann, as cited in the previous three paragraphs, has been and remains shattering to Catholic belief in the Gospels. While Catholic exegetes from 1921 onwards reacted against the anti-dogmatic aspects of Bultmann's conclusions, they were not able to produce a systematic refutation of his highly technical and superbly organized presentation, and so they began to emphasize the role of the "editors" of the "final redaction" of the Gospels, thus relying upon `redaction-criticism' to save the doctrinal beliefs of Catholic faith, while accepting a certain basic validity of Bultmann's form-critical method. Catholic exegetes and theologians also wrote against Bultmann's "philosophical presuppositions." As the 1993 document of the PBC points out: "Conscious of the cultural distance between the world of the first century and that of the twentieth, Bultmann was particularly anxious to make the reality of which the Bible treats speak to his contemporaries. He insisted upon the `pre-understanding' necessary for all understanding and elaborated the theory of the existential interpretation of the New Testament writings. Relying on the thinking of Heidegger, Bultmann insisted that it is not possible to have an exegesis of a biblical text without presuppositions which guide comprehension. ... To avoid subjectivism, however, one must allow preunderstanding to be deepened and enriched - even to be modified and corrected - by the reality of the text" (IBC, IIA:1). The Commission believes that the historical-critical method, of which form-criticism is an initial step, "when used objectively, implies of itself no a priori," and "if its use is accompanied by a priori principles, that is not something pertaining to the method itself, but to certain hermeneutical choices which govern the interpretation and can be tendentious" (IBC, IA:4). And the Commission cautions against "the temptation to apply to the study of the Bible the purely objective criteria used in the natural sciences. On the one hand," it continues, "all events reported in the Bible are interpreted events. On the other, all exegesis of the accounts of these events necessarily involves the exegete's own subjectivity. Access to a proper understanding of biblical texts is only granted to the person who has an affinity with what the text is saying on the basis of life experience. The question which faces every exegete is this: which hermeneutical theory best enables a proper grasp of the profound reality of which Scripture speaks and its meaningful expression for people today?" (IBC, IIA:2).

       14. These citations from the PBC's document regarding `pre-understanding' illustrate the extent to which the thinking of Bultmann has influenced historical-critical discussion during the twentieth century. With attention drawn away from the presuppositions of the historical-critical method itself, and especially of the form-critical method, which is assumed to imply "no a priori" when it is used objectively, the discussion of presuppositions is centered around the acceptance or rejection of Martin Heidegger's existentialist philosophy, as applied by Bultmann to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and the Biblical Commission opts for an alternative view of existence, namely, an hermeneutical theory which makes the profound reality of Scripture a "meaningful expression for people today." In contrast, the neo-Patristic method, having distinguished Bultmann's form-critical presuppositions from his supervenient existentialist meditations, critically examines both levels of his thought. The logic of his writing career is simple: having `eliminated' in his History of the Synoptic Tradition everything miraculous, everything supernatural, almost everything historical from the life of Jesus as depicted in the four Gospels, his subsequent discourse was aimed at suggesting from a philosophical point of view why anyone should be a Christian at all, and so he presented his minimal idea of Christianity in a series of works over the following years.10 But most important of all was his famous essay, "Neues Testament und Mythologie," published in Munich in 1941, which touched off the "demythologizing debate" that embroiled liberal Protestant exegesis for decades thereafter.11 Since 1941 much of the discussion regarding `pre-understanding' in the interpretation of the Bible has centered around the demythologizing debate as a sequel to the devastating results of form-critical analysis of the New Testament.

       15. With respect to the devastating use of form-criticism by Bultmann and other liberal Protestant exegetes, Catholic exegetes gave partial responses, especially in their oral teaching, but, to my knowledge, nothing very thoroughgoing and systematic ever appeared in print. It does not seem an exaggeration to say that The History of the Synoptic Tradition, has sat poorly digested in the belly of Catholic biblical scholarship from 1921 to the present day. When articles regarding Bultmann's form-critical work began to appear in Catholic periodicals after 1945, they were mostly expository of what he himself maintained, with a paragraph or two added at the end cautioning that certain of his conclusions were unacceptable to Catholic faith. Some Catholic theologians undertook to refute the presuppositions of Bultmann's `demythologizing,' but they did not directly examine their use in his exegetical method as such.12 In the meanwhile, more and more Catholic exegetes were attempting to make prudent use of Bultmann's exegetical method, seeking at the same time not very successfully to exclude his anti-dogmatic assumptions and conclusions. Thus a state of tension arose between Catholic followers of the new exegesis and adherents to traditional Catholic exegesis. This tension is alluded to in a document put out by the International Theological Commission in 1988, which recalls that "the conflict between exegesis and dogmatic theology is a modern phenomenon"13 The 1993 Biblical Commission's document remarks that "there was no conflict in a generalized sense between Catholic exegesis and dogmatic theology but only some instances of strong tension" (IBC, IIID.4). It seems that, on the one hand, some Catholic followers of the historical-critical school were presenting results of their technical procedures that reflected anti-dogmatic premises, while, on the other hand, traditional theologians were objecting on grounds of purely dogmatic reasoning to the anti-dogmatic appearance of some of these results without taking the time to analyze the exegetical procedure itself. Looking at this controversy from a contemporary neo-Patristic point of view, one is able to say that the Catholic form-critical exegetes had recognized in the exegetical procedures of Bultmann et. al. the raising of problems whose explanation could serve for a development of the Catholic interpretation of the Bible, but they did not have the technical apparatus needed to purify the method sufficiently of its deleterious presuppositions and procedures. At the same time, the dogmatic theologians who reacted against the historical-critical method did so for the most part on dogmatic grounds without making the needed effort to analyze the procedures of the method itself.

       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,14 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" in use and by the employment of "a less arbitrary philosophy which offers a greater number of presuppositions favoring a true hearing of the text."15 The Cardinal observed that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century "have virtually become academic dogmas,"16 owing especially to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose "basic methodological orientations determine even to this day the methodology and course of modern exegesis,"17 and he found it imperative at this juncture of time to challenge the fundamental ideas of their method.18 Bultmann the exegete, he said, "represents a background consensus of the scientific exegesis dominant today," even though Bultmann was not so much a scientific as a systematic worker, whose exegetical conclusions "are not the result of historical findings, but emerge from a framework of systematic presuppositions."19 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 for a new synthesis,"20 which will require "the attentive and critical commitment of a whole generation."21 On the level of the integration of the biblical texts into their historical context, said the Cardinal, the time is ripe for a "radical new 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.22 And, on the level of their location "in the totality of their historical unfolding," that is, of their total meaning, he said, the biblical texts "must be integrated into a theological vision in the strict sense, based upon the experience of Revelation."23 To achieve this task he saw the need "to introduce into the discussion the great proposals of Patristic and medieval thought," as well as reflection upon "the fundamental options of the Reformation and on the choices it involved in the history of interpretation."24

       17. The four senses. The neo-Patristic approach is rooted in a radical and pervasive distinction between the literal and the spiritual sense of the inspired text and it proceeds by the use of an explicit framework of the traditional four senses, namely, the literal sense, the allegorical sense, the tropological, or moral, sense, and the anagogical, or eschatological, sense of the sacred text.25 The neo-Patristic method makes use of the insights of the Fathers of the Church, and of other early ecclesiastical writers, as well as the insights of medieval, modern, and contemporary exegetes and theologians, in the construction and use of a scientific framework of thought that is deemed adequate both on the level of faith and on the level of reason. The neo-Patristic approach arises from two general observations: a) the problems raised by historical-critical exegetes regarding the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, if resolved in a different mental framework, could occasion a positive development of Catholic exegesis; and b) the exegetical tradition of the Fathers of the Church, together with its elaboration in medieval and modern times, is the key to the synthesizing or rejecting of particular results of historical criticism. The neo-Patristic exegete finds material for his study in the historical-critical literature, and he finds the formality of his study in the Patristic literature, as expanded also into the commentaries of Catholic biblical scholars over the centuries, together with the input of contemporary neo-Patristic scholarship. The overall framework of the neo-Patristic approach is constructed according to the Patristic notion of the four senses of the inspired text of Sacred Scripture. The Fathers actually varied in their notion of the number and names of the senses of Sacred Scripture, and they often used the notion without speculating on this question. St. Augustine alludes to four senses of Sacred Scripture at the beginning of his De Genesi ad litteram, where he says: "In all the sacred books, we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given."26 St. Thomas Aquinas greatly developed the theory of the four senses and speculated on their relation to one another, and, for this reason, he could be considered to be the founder of the neo-Patristic approach.27 His teaching serves as a starting point for a more differentiated exposition of the method, beginning from the first big distinction between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. For St. Thomas this distinction arises from the fact that the rightly understood meaning of the words themselves is embodied in the literal sense, while the fact that the things expressed by the words signify other things produces the spiritual sense. But the central thing signified by these prefigurements is Jesus Christ Himself, who, as the God-Man, is the central focus of the spiritual sense and the subject of an extended symbolism which is known as the Allegory of Christ and his Church.

       18. History and reality. There is reason to be dissatisfied with a self-characterized `historical method' which leaves undefined such all-pervasive terms as `historical,' `scientific,' and `real.' Let us reflect briefly on the thought that to view the conclusions of historical-critical exegesis "in the perspective of their own history," as Cardinal Ratzinger put it, means to view them in the context of `reality.' Bultmann, in order to provide some verbal plausibility for the object of Christian faith as stripped of its historical reality through form-critical analysis, proposed a double meaning of `history' and a double meaning of `reality.' In his terminology, history as Historie is composed of causally connected events and of relationships between facts which are objectively verifiable and chronologically determinable,28 while history as Geschichte consists of the encounters of the "genuinely existing" human being, whose "existential constitution" ultimately signifies "to exist, to be confronted with non-being, to be able to be and ever to decide anew." By the use of this existentialist distinction, Bultmann subjectivized the question of the historicity of the Gospels and of the object of Christian faith into the possession by the contemporary thinker of what he called "true historicity," that is, "the existential constitution of the being which necessarily exists in history.29 Bultmann did not hesitate to proclaim that "the right question to frame with regard to the Bible - at any rate within the Church - is the question of human existence," and he saw this as "a question which at bottom determines our approach to and interpretation of all historical documents."30 But for the neo-Patristic exegete this principle of Bultmann puts out of focus all truly scientific study of the Bible or of any historical document, because the first question that has to be asked is the question of reality: Did what is recounted in the historical books of the Bible, and above all in the Gospels, really take place as described or not? Bultmann did ask this question, and, in order to reassure his audience of believing Christians, he presented a convenient distinction between reality as Realität, which is what he calls the reality that is known through sense experience and constitutes the objectively existing world in which man finds himself, and reality as Wirklichkeit, which for Bultmann is the reality of "historically existing men," as described above.31 This distinction, using a play upon the subject-object relationship in human understanding, enabled Bultmann to predicate the word `reality' of the post-form-critical imaginary object of Christian faith, while at the same time excluding the reality of the object of faith in the spontaneous meaning of the word `reality.' But the double meaning of `history' and of `reality' in the teaching of Bultmann does not stand up under neo-Patristic analysis.

       19. Neo-Patristic exegesis seeks to clarify the definitions of such terms as `scientific,' `historical,' `critical,' `real,' `literal,' `spiritual,' `literary form,' `historical reality,' `level of meaning,' `context,' and many others. The neo-Patristic method highlights the concept of reality in the definition of science, taking the term `science' to mean "the knowledge of reality as such," `historical science' to mean "the knowledge of past reality as such, and `theological science' to mean "the knowledge of revealed reality as such."32 These definitions of terms lead to the concept of the `science of historical theology,' as "the knowledge of past revealed reality as such," and these concepts are elements in the scientific medium of the neo-Patristic interpreter which, in my opinion, he should use, not only in examining the inspired text, but also in examining the writings of other interpreters. For instance, in approaching a biblical passage, the neo-Patristic exegete will include the processing of prominent interpretations given also by followers of the historical-critical method, and, in fact, he will find that historical-critical literature is an important source of material, keeping clearly in mind his own scientific medium of thought in the realization that science is science only to the extent that it is aware of its own medium of thought and knowing that the primary question in all instances is the reality of its object of thought. Thus, in examining the reasoning of historical-critical writers as of all other exegetes and theologians, the neo-Patristic researcher will carefully consider how they handle the concept of reality and how clearly they are aware of their own medium of thought. Cardinal Ratzinger notes that "from a distance the observer becomes aware with surprise that these interpretations [of historical-critical exegetes], which were taken to be so rigorously scientific and purely `historical,' reflect in reality the spirit of their authors rather than the spirit of ages gone by."33 We take Cardinal Ratzinger's expression "in reality" to mean "in the concept of reality as an explicitly recognized and differentiated medium of one's own thought.

       20. The literal sense. In keeping with the teaching of the Church on the fundamental character of the literal sense, the neo-Patristic method begins with the literal sense and never contradicts it, but it views the literal sense in the framework of the four senses, as did Aquinas. It is interesting to note that St. Thomas, while he collected many of the insights of the Fathers of the Church into his presentation of the spiritual senses of the inspired text, at the same time did such a an excellent job for his time in interpreting the literal sense in his commentaries that he greatly expedited the tendency among Catholic exegetes over the subsequent centuries to emphasize the literal meaning to the extent of virtually abandoning the pursuit of the spiritual meanings objectively inherent in the text. The neo-Patristic method begins with and maintains the literal sense of the sacred text, which it also assumes to be inerrant, and it seeks to use precisely defined literary genres in the way requested by Pope Pius XII in Divino afflante Spiritu to explain instances in which critics claim to find historical errors in the inspired text (see no. 9 above). There is a strong tendency among contemporary exegetes to base their reasonings upon many 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 unfactual contradictions from scientific consideration, and they find that the resolving of many of these apparent contradictions leads to new insights into the text. They 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 surrounding contemporary study of the biblical text, but they are confident that the answers are objectively there to be found.

       21. The historical sense. In neo-Patristic exegesis, the historical sense of the text is on the level of the literal sense and may be defined as "that sense which is the direct object of historical science." By `historical science' is meant "the knowledge of past reality as past reality." Thus the formality of historical science in the neo-Patristic framework is the concept of the past within the general concept of reality, and this approach enables the neo-Patristic researcher to distinguish sharply between historical fiction and historical reality, so that whether the biblical text is presenting fact or fiction in its literal sense is the first question to be resolved. Bultmann claims that the entire text of the Gospels is presented in a fictional genre, and neo-Patristics undertake to refute this claim, not only in general but also verse by verse. In doing so they first eliminate the presuppositions of Bultmann's method and 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, he has misformulated historical principles that are still waiting to be formulated correctly, and he has called attention to aspects of meaning in the sacred text that are still waiting to be expressed correctly. 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 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.


1. Pontifical Biblical Commission, Eng. ed. (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Nov. 1993), the opening words of ch. I.

2. Pope John Paul II, Address of 23 April 1993 to the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, no. 10.

3. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum, 11 October 1992 (reprinted at the beginning of the CCC).

4. Ibid., no. 1.

5. Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, no. 38.

6. R. Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1st ed., 1921; 8th rev. ed., Gottingen, 1970); Eng. trans. by J. Marsh, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963) - hereafter to be referred to as HST.

7. R. Bultmann, "The New Approach to the Synoptic Problem," in Existence and Faith, (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1960), p. 47. The essay was first published in 1926.

8. Bultmann, "The New Approach to the Synoptic Problem," loc. cit., 51.

9. Bultmann, "New Approach," loc. cit., 52.

10. Among Bultmann's significant post-exegetical works are to be included his Jesus (Tübingen, 1926), Glauben und Verstehen (4 vols.: Tübingen, 1933-1965), and many others. Among English-language editions of his writings which illustrate his `pre-understanding' may be included History and Eschatology (1955), Jesus and the Word (1958), Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958), Existence and Faith (1960), and Faith and Understanding (1969).

11. R. Bultmann, "Neues Testament und Mythologie," in Offenbarung und Heilsgeschehen: Beiträge zur evangelischen Theologie, vol. VII/2 (Munich, 1941); republished in English as "New Testament and Mythology," in Hans Werner Bartsch ed., Kerygma and Myth: a Theological Debate, vol. 1 (London, 1953).

12. See nos. 22-23 below.

13. International Theological Commission, Eng. trans., "On the Interpretation of Dogmas," in Origins 20 (1990-1991), 10.

14. J. Card. Ratzinger, "L'interpretazione della Bibbia in conflitto," in I. de la Potterie, ed., L'esegesi cristiana oggi (Casale Monferrato, Italy: PIEMME, 1991), 93-125; orig. pub., "Schriftauslegung im Widerstreit," in J. Ratzinger, ed., Quaest. Disp., 117 (Freiburg: Herder, 1989), 15-44.

15. Ratzinger, "L'interpretazione della Bibbia in conflitto," 100 and 114. (These and the following quotations are my translations from the Italian version.)

16. Ibid., 123.

17. Ibid., 104.

18. Cf. J.F. McCarthy, "Neo-Patristic Exegesis to the Rescue," in Living Tradition 41 (May 1992).

19. Ratzinger, "L'interpretazione della Bibbia in conflitto," 110-111.

20. Ibid., 117.

21. Ibid., 113.

22. Ibid., 123-124.

23. Ibid., 121-122.

24. Ibid., 124.

25. There is an abundant literature of medieval writings regarding the four senses. See, e.g., H. de Lubac, Exégèse medievale. Les quatre sens de l'Ecriture (Paris: Aubier, 1959). This work is notable especially for the copiousness of the sources cited.

26. A. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (trans. by J.H. Taylor, New York: Newman Press, 1982), bk. 1, ch. 1 (= Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 41, p. 19).

27. See especially Aquinas, S.Th., I, q. 1, art. 10; Quodlibetalis VII, q. 6; In epist. S. Pauli ad Galatas. Cf. T. Kuffel, "St. Thomas' Method of Biblical Exegesis," in Living Tradition 38 (Nov. 1991).

28. Bultmann, History and Eschatology, 143-144.

29. Bultmann, in Kerygma and Myth, loc. cit., vol. 1, 191-193 and 200.

30. Bultmann, Ibid., p. 191. An analysis and answer to Bultmann's theory of history is given in J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology (2nd printing, Rockford, Ill.: TAN, 1991), pp. 7-9 and 113-119.

31. Cf. R. Bultmann, "Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung, in H.W. Bartsch et al., Kerygma und Mythos (Hamburg: Evangelischer Verlag), vol. VI-1: a) "... die ein objektivierenden Sehen vergestellte Wirklichkeit der Welt, innerhalb deren sich der Mensch verfindet..." (p. 20); b) "... als die Wirklichkeit des geschlichtlich existierenden Menschen" (p. 21).

32. See McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 34-42, 60-63, and 97-100.

33. Ratzinger, op. cit., 103.

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