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No. 77 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 1998


by John F. McCarthy

        1.   In this article two viewpoints and two key terms will be examined. The two viewpoints are the historical-critical versus the neo-Patristic approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and the two key terms are the words "critical" and "historical." The definition and division of "biblical criticism" leads to the questions of the literary analysis of the inspired word and of historical method. Connected with these two questions is the problem of presuppositions in the minds of modern interpreters of the sacred text and, in particular, of how these presuppositions relate to "scientific historical method." The notion of "scientific method" itself is crucial in this regard. In general, then, this article deals with the importance of using clearly defined terms in the process of making judgments about what is said in Sacred Scripture, and, therefore, of having an adequate mental apparatus, or mental framework, for all valid scientific interpretation, including, not only the interpretation of the canonical books of the Bible, but also the interpretation of statements made by the Magisterium of the Church regarding the interpretation of the Bible. The present article is critical of the "historical-critical method," as this term is commonly understood today, but it is aimed only at technical aspects of the method itself and does not question the good faith or loyal intentions of the Catholic historical-critics whom it quotes for the sake of example.

        2.  A great issue within Catholic Scripture scholarship throughout the entire twentieth century has been how to reconcile certain results of historical-critical research into the human aspects of the inspired text with the supernatural character and inerrancy with which this text is endowed. Scholars of the historical-critical school profess that, in traditional Catholic exegesis up to and often including the twentieth century, the limitations of the human authorship of the sacred books were systematically overlooked or underestimated, while scholars of the traditional school maintain that historical-critics downplay the divine authorship and the supernatural effects of divine inspiration. In this article, by the "historical-critical school" is meant those writers who follow the method of biblical criticism initiated by Richard Simon in 1678, developed over the intervening years by Albert Eichhorn, Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, and a host of other writers, and now in use among Catholic exegetes with various modifications of their own choosing. The hyphenated form, historical-criticism, form-criticism, redaction-criticism, etc., is used in this article to distinguish writers of what is commonly referred to today as the "historical-critical school" from writers who use other methods of historical criticism. The two Catholic schools of interpretation agree that "the inspired books teach the truth," but they disagree over the extent of that truth and the manner in which it is conveyed, as well as over what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and what God intended to say to us through their words. This discussion revolves largely around the question of the literary genres used by the inspired writers, whether they are the standard genres of history, poetry, prophecy, legal norms, wisdom sayings etc., and their sub-genres, or the special genres of the historical-critical school, such as apophthegms, logia, I-sayings, miracle stories, legends, and midrash. The neo-Patristic approach stands within the perennial tradition of Catholic interpretation, taking its inspiration from the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and seeking to make a fresh start in addressing this important issue through the use of a more fully developed critical and hermeneutical apparatus. This project involves a critical reexamination of the concepts and distinctions used by historical-critics in arriving at their conclusions. The subject of the present article is the notion of historical criticism itself.

        3.  Webster's Dictionary defines "criticism," in the sense that we are discussing here, as "the scientific investigation of literary documents (as the Bible) in regard to such matters as origin, text, composition, character, or history." 1 Along the same lines, a Catholic historical-critic defines criticism as "the art of distinguishing the true from the false," which, as applied to a literary work, "proposes to establish the authenticity (who the author is), the integrity, the genre of truth which fits it, etc.," so that the Bible, while it is exempt from all error, "in the exact measure in which it is a human work, is subject to the criteria with which other human works are judged." 2 This definition places full emphasis upon the literary texts themselves, and, in the case of the inspired books of the Bible, places the sacred writers on the defensive. From a different perspective Louis Bouyer says that "criticism" means in particular "the systematic activity of verifying the grounds for our various judgments," and he divides the term in this way: "Textual criticism endeavors to verify the authenticity of the texts in question, and historical criticism to verify the authenticity of generally admitted facts. In the same way, philosophical or theological criticism is legitimately practiced in verifying the arguments by which we attempt to establish or justify our beliefs." 3 This second definition places emphasis upon the verification of the mental processes used by the critic in passing judgments upon written texts, and thus it also brings under examination the thinking of the critic himself and the mental apparatus that he is using. In the rise of modern biblical exegesis, historical-critics have been powerfully on the offensive in their criticism of the inspired texts and of traditional interpretations of them, but they have been weak in examining the thought-processes by means of which they arrive at their conclusions.

        4.  Textual criticism searches for changes that may have occurred in the transmission of the text in order to restore it to its original state. Neo-Patristic exegetes are in agreement over the need and usefulness of textual criticism, as brought out by Pope Pius XII in his great encyclical letter Divino afflante Spiritu, where he calls upon the exegete of today to imitate St. Jerome, "as far as the science of his time permitted,"and "not a few" of the great [Catholic] exegetes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in striving "to acquire daily a greater facility in biblical as well as in other oriental languages and to support his interpretation by the aids which all branches of philology supply," so as to be able to explain the original wording of the text, "and this can be done all the more easily and fruitfully, if to the knowledge of languages be joined solid skill in the art of criticism (solida criticae artis peritia) of the same text," 4 which art he identifies with textual criticism in the following words:

The great importance which should be attached to this kind of criticism was aptly pointed out by Augustine, when, among the precepts to be recommended to the student of the Sacred Books, he put in the first place the care to possess a corrected text. ... In the present day, indeed, this art, which is called textual criticism and which is used with great and praiseworthy results in the editions of profane writings, is also quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books, because of that very reverence which is due to the Divine Oracles. For its very purpose is to insure that the sacred text be restored, as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of copyists and be freed, as far as may be done, from glosses and omissions, from the interchange and repetition of words and from all other kinds of mistakes which are wont to make their way gradually into writings handed down through many centuries. 5

        5.  The historical-critic uses literary criticism to examine the content of the sacred books "under the triple aspect of language, composition, and origin," and this includes philological study of the text, detailed analysis of its content, investigation of the sources used, determining the literary genre of particular passages, and drawing judicious conclusions regarding the authorship of each respective book. 6 In the common denotation of these words, literary criticism was also practiced by such early ecclesiastical writers and Fathers of the Church as Origen, Hesychius, Jerome, and Augustine, in that they developed and applied rules for discerning the truth and meaning of the Scriptures, which rules have been further refined and used by Medieval scholars and Catholic exegetes down to the present time, but historical-critics have special meanings for expressions like "investigation of the sources," and "determining the literary genre," and "drawing judicious conclusions." Dyson and MacKenzie associate the term "literary criticism" with that "higher criticism" which has the task of determining the "origin and mode of composition" of a text, an activity which, "with its refined scientific methods, is chiefly a 19th century development," regarding which "the first name to be mentioned of a critic in the modern sense of the word is that of the French Catholic priest Richard Simon (1638-1712), justly called `the father of biblical criticism.'" They note that "He saw and formulated the major problems that have occupied criticism since his day, and boldly applied scientific methods for their solution." 7 But the works of Father Simon were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, and "further Catholic work on these lines was discouraged," with the result that "the critical analysis of the Bible, when it came, was entirely non-Catholic - indeed anti-Catholic - and vastly more irresponsible and destructive than it need have been." 8 In the opinion of another historical-critic, "notwithstanding certain rash opinions [of Father Richard Simon] and certain statements at least not very opportune, his principles are still those of modern critics," [but] "unfortunately, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rationalism took possession of the arms which the new discipline was furnishing in order to undermine the authority of the Holy Books and to construct anew a history of Israel, rather a history of Christian origins, in which every supernatural intervention disappears and the principal personages, not excluding even Jesus Christ, end up having a very secondary role, when even their very existence does not get denied, as has happened more than once." 9

        6.  Neo-Patristic researchers recognize a certain fundament of truth in these and similar judgments of Catholic historical-critics about the origin of their method, but it questions the technical precision of many of these judgments. What exactly is "higher" about "higher criticism"? If higher-criticism is "higher" because it assumes the superiority of its "refined scientific methods" over a postulated naivety of the inspired text, then this approach needs to keep clearly in view how it is distinguished from the "higher criticism" rejected by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus in the following words:

These latter [professors of Sacred Scripture, etc.], with a similar object in view, should make themselves well and thoroughly acquainted with the art of true criticism. There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method, dignified by the name of "higher criticism," which pretends to judge the origin, integrity, and authority of each book from internal indications alone. It is clear, on the other hand, that in historical questions, such as the origin and handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, and that historical investigation should be made with the utmost care; and that in this manner internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation. To look upon it in any other light will be to open the door to many evil consequences. It will make the enemies of religion much more bold and confident in attacking and mangling the sacred books; and this vaunted "higher criticism" will resolve itself into the reflection of the bias and the prejudice of the critics. It will not throw on the Scripture the light which is sought, or prove of any advantage to doctrine; it will only give rise to disagreement and dissension, those sure notes of error which the critics in question so plentifully exhibit in their own persons; and seeing that most of them are tainted with false philosophy and rationalism, it must lead to the elimination from the sacred writings of all prophecy and miracle, and of everything else that is outside the natural order. 10

        7.  Neo-Patristic interpretation presumes the loyalty to the Magisterium of the Church of those Catholic historical-critics whose explanations it examines, and it excludes from them the personal bias and prejudice which Pope Leo XIII attributes to the users of higher-criticism in the passage of Providentissimus Deus quoted just above, in keeping with the following directive of Pope Pius XII in Divino afflante Spiritu regarding the freedom of exegetes to probe the problems raised by the teaching of the Church about the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture:

Let all the other children of the Church bear in mind that the efforts of these resolute laborers in the vineyard of the Lord should be judged, not only with equity and justice, but also with the greatest charity; all, moreover, should abhor that intemperate zeal which imagines that whatever is new should for that very reason be opposed or suspected. ... This true liberty of the children of God, which adheres faithfully to the teaching of the Church and accepts and uses gratefully the contributions of profane science, this liberty, upheld and sustained in every way by the confidence of all, is the condition and source of all lasting fruit and of all solid progress in Catholic doctrine, as our predecesssor of happy memory Leo XIII rightly observes, when he says: `Unless harmony of mind be maintained and principles safeguarded, no progress can be expected in this matter from the varied studies of many.' 11

        8.  The neo-Patristic method presumes that Catholic historical-critics, in their judgments and in their expositions, aim to avoid the rationalism inherent in classical higher-criticism, but it also questions whether there has been sufficient precision in the adaptations that they have made. Have Catholic historical-critics defined their science with the needed clarity of concepts? Have they reached a sufficiently scientific level of historical investigation? One of the steps in the neo-Patristic method is to examine relevant historical-critical interpretations in terms of the presuppositions and logical method underlying their conclusions, seeking to incorporate whatever is found to be scientifically solid, in the realization that an adequate historical method will, indeed, lead to certain new discoveries. In doing this, neo-Patristic interpreters follow the advice of Pope Benedict XV, where he says: "We warmly commend, of course, those who, with the assistance of critical methods, seek to discover new ways of explaining the difficulties in Holy Scripture, whether for their own guidance or to help others. But we remind them that they will only come to miserable grief, if they neglect our predecessor's injunctions and overstep the limits set by the Fathers." 12 Historical-critics, while admitting that Richard Simon had "many errors in his works," nevertheless maintain that he "laid the foundations of Catholic critico-historical study of the Bible." 13 Neo-Patristic thinkers are interested in determining how these "foundations of critico-historical study" fit in with the deeper principles of human thought in general, and how they stand up under logical analysis.

        9.  Modern rationalism has well been defined as "the view that the human reason, or understanding, is the sole source and final test of all truth," and it is often associated with a certain shallow and misleading philosophy, "frequently put forward in the name of science," by which "questionable philosophical speculations are taken for scientific facts, and science is falsely supposed to be in opposition to religion." 14 Rationalism acquired its modern meaning in 1637 with the publication of the Discourse on Method of René Descartes (1596-1650), in which he declared that there are in man certain innate, self-evident principles from which all true knowledge must necessarily flow. In the winter of 1619-1620, Descartes conceived his method of "universal methodic doubt," which he began to apply systematically to all branches of knowledge as a quasi-mathematical process which begins from natural human intuition and moves forward by deduction. The system he devised was presented in finished form in his Discourse on Method (1637) and in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). Descartes' exclusively deductive method sharply contrasts with what is known today as the "scientific method," and yet he has been hailed as the "Socrates of modern thought," in that he drew the attention of modern thinkers to the nature of thought and the conditions of certified knowledge, but his approach to human understanding "was vitiated by his preconceived doctrine of the absolute antithesis of mind and matter, a doctrine which, by creating an imaginary chasm between subject and object, undid all that Socrates, Aristotle, and the Schoolmen had accomplished," with the unfortunate result that how to bridge this imaginary mental chasm "came to be the problem which almost every great philosopher since Descartes' time has striven in vain to solve." 15

        10.  The critical method of Descartes was later modified by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), so as to admit sense-experience as a factor of rational knowledge, and afterwards by Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) and others. These rationalist methods of human reasoning have had enormous influence over modern thought, and there is need carefully to consider how elements of their methods can be incorporated within the great synthesis of Thomas Aquinas, but what is of direct concern in this article is the danger, in the use of the historical-critical method by Catholic interpreters of Sacred Scripture, of defective Cartesian, Kantian, and Hegelian thinking inherent in the method. Although Descartes excluded from his universal methodic doubt matters pertaining to faith and morals, 16 , this exclusion was rejected by a wide spectrum of his followers, so that there arose an historic effort on the part of critical thinkers, especially of those interested in questions of faith and reason, gradually and as a spontaneous tendency of their method, to reject all religious tenets that cannot be justified by reason alone. In the late eighteenth century two prominent schools of "rationalism in religion" took form, one in England and the other in Germany. English deism arose to proclaim a viewpoint which, while accepting the fact of the creation of the world by God, rejected on principle any subsequent intervention of God and admitted religious truths only to the extent that they could be understood and verified by reason alone, thereby reducing the revealed doctrines of Christianity to an inferior level of thought. For its rationale, deism depended upon the naturalism of Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648), a contemporary of Descartes, and the empiricism 17 of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Herbert of Cherbury had advocated the principle of naturalism, according to which there was said to be a universal natural religion whose principal tenet is "Believe in God and do your duty," and having the negative doctrine that all official religion is just an artifice of cunning rulers and priests. 18 Then, by the early eighteenth century, wide acceptance had been given to Newton's theory that physical nature is a closed mechanical system governed by unbreakable physical laws. Hence deists, while accepting the idea of creation of the universe by God, found it more and more difficult to accept any intervention of God in the natural world, whether in the form of alleged miracles or relating to any other supernatural claim, such as the divinity of Christ, the marvelous events recorded in Sacred Scripture, and the idea of divine inspiration.

        11.  Partly in opposition to the writings of British naturalists, there arose the German school of rationalism in religion. originating from the philosophical system of Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Wolff produced arguments intended to provide rational proof for supernatural truths presented in Sacred Scripture, in opposition to the anti-supernaturalism of the naturalists, but his method "turned out to be strongly in favor of the naturalism that he wished to condemn," 19 because he made natural human reason the ultimate judge of both natural and revealed religion. Thus, as time went on, German rationalists mounted an ever-growing offensive against the miracles and other extraordinary events recorded in the Bible. Before the end of the eighteenth century, Semler, Teller, and others claimed to have shown the merely local and time-conditioned character of the biblical records, ostensibly in order "to safeguard the deeper revelation, while sacrificing to the critics its superficial vehicle." 20 Early in the nineteenth century there arose in Germany a "second wave" of religious rationalism, spearheaded by G.W. Hegel, under whose influence David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), and others developed the "higher criticism" of Sacred Scripture, by the use of which "its supernatural elements were systematically explained away as products of mythology." 21 Then came forward the theory that religion arises from a religious sense in man that is distinct from the faculty of reason, to the effect that revelation is not to be attributed to an exterior and objective speaking of God, but only to an interior and subjective personal experience. Thus, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) "explained the very idea of God as a projection of man's desire and need." 22 And so, early attempts by the German rationalist school to defend a consistent message of truth in the biblical accounts soon gave way to the acceptance of "undeniable errors," and to the admission that the outlook of even the New Testament biblical writers was simply "not up to the requirements of modern man." This development of critical outlook in the German school of rationalism in religion was expressed over a span of a century and a half from about 1768 to 1914 in a long series of critical works, 23 towards the end of which arose, on the basis of selected previous positions of the same school of thought, the method of form-criticism, which first attracted the positive interest of the Catholic exegete, Marie-Joseph Lagrange, in the early 1890s and has now become the dominant approach among Catholic Scripture scholars.

        12.  The method known as form-criticism dates back to the work of Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), with his commentary on Genesis, first published in 1901. 24 Gunkel built upon the Documentary Theory of the origin of the Pentateuch elaborated by Julius Wellhausen in the 1870s, in which literary-criticism and source-criticism had been used in such a way that "the different sources (J, E, D, P) of the Pentateuch and the redactional material that now unites them were separated from each other on grounds of style, vocabulary, and the like, as well as the distinctive theological and religious outlook and interest that could be discovered in each source." 25 But Gunkel added a new methodology. In the final years of the nineteenth century, there had emerged the history of religions school, which directed its attention to the development of the traditions behind the biblical text. Hermann Gunkel had "pioneered these new ideas" with the publication in 1895 of his Creation and Chaos in the Beginning and at the End of Time, which surveyed "the biblical creation myths from Genesis 1 to Revelation 12." 26 In his book Genesis, Gunkel then concentrated his attention on the "literary forms" of Hebrew literature and on the "literary history" behind them, on the assumption that each form belonged to "a quite definite `setting in life' (Sitz im Leben); that is, the particular literary form in which a subject matter found expression was itself dictated by the particular setting in life to which it was addressed." 27

        13.  Suelzer and Kselman relate that, for the most part, nineteenth-century Catholic exegetes, often also as a result of pressure from the authorities of the Church, rejected the new exegetical approach being fostered by these rationalist researchers, and they made "no distinction between the methods and conclusions of the new criticism and the rationalist philosophy upon which the system was based." 28 But, beginning in 1897, Marie-Joseph Lagrange publicly "championed a positive response to the challenges of higher criticism." He urged "that critics replace their modern Western concepts with a Semitic view of authorship and historicity," and, regarding the testimony of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, "distinguish between the literary and the historical testimony." Then, in 1905, in his Historical Criticism and the Old Testament, "he demonstrated the application of such a procedure to the besetting problems of Catholic exegesis: the relation of criticism to dogma, to science, and to history," and he pointed out that, to trace the observed fact of the development of dogmas, "one must employ the historical method in the study of Scripture." With reference to critical attacks on the historicity of the Scriptural accounts, "Lagrange insisted that the first task in assessing the value of portions having the appearance of history is to analyze their literary genres." 29

        14.  With regard to this adoption, as cautious as it may have been, by a Catholic exegete of the critical methods in use by rationalists, the first question before the eyes of a neo-Patristic researcher is whether a sufficient distinction was made, not only between the new critical method itself and the rationalist philosophy upon which it was based, but also between the presuppositions of the new critical method itself and the elements of valid historical science that it might contain. It seems that Lagrange, in preparing his book on historical criticism, foresaw the need of a preliminary analysis of the concepts of history and historical method, but he, nevertheless, plunged into the method without performing this task. 30 How "scientific" is the form-criticism of Hermann Gunkel? To approach that question properly we must first define exactly what is meant by science, especially in the area of historical science. But one can spot chinks in the structure even prior to that. The Catholic exegete should, perhaps, separate the methods and conclusions of the new criticism from the rationalist philosophy upon which it is based, but what if the rationalist philosophy is part of the method? Gunkel's painstaking analyses of "style, vocabulary, and the like" need, of course, to be looked at carefully and in detail before any judgment can be made, but his method also involves evaluations on grounds of "the distinctive theological and religious outlook and interest that could be discerned in each source." 31 How much confidence can a Catholic have in the ability of a rationalist to make such judgments? How objective will these judgments be? Gunkel's Creation and Chaos undertakes to trace the history of the "biblical creation myths," but, in order to carry out this study, he first had to presume that these creation accounts are myths, and he never proved this presupposition. Again, in his Genesis, Gunkel distinguished different literary genres on the presumption that each genre arose from "a quite definite Sitz im Leben," and was "dictated by the particular setting in life to which it was addressed." Now, neo-Patristic exegetes allow that the life-setting (properly defined) played a role in what the sacred writers wrote, but it also allows for the influence of human intelligence on the one hand and of divine inspiration on the other. What room does Gunkel's method leave either for the exercise of human intelligence in the origin of the biblical accounts or for a formal and discernible role of the divine Holy Spirit in the composition of the biblical texts? A full answer to this question requires a detailed examination of Gunkel's conclusions, but his evident bias against the very possibility of supernatural happenings as well as his exclusion on principle of any real supernatural illumination or guidance of the sacred writers would seem from the start to have prevented him from seeing the whole reality, even of the smaller passages that he picked out as literary units.

        15.  The neo-Patristic method posits divine inspiration as a source of all that is written in the canonical books of Sacred Scripture in keeping with the following teaching of Providentissimus Deus: "For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the [First] Council of the Vatican." 32 All Catholic Scripture scholars accept this teaching in some way, but Catholic historical-critics tend, in view of the conclusions of their method, to believe that the scope of this definition of biblical inspiration has been restricted by later documents of the Magisterium, especially by the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, by the Instruction of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of 1964, and by the constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council, proclaimed in 1965. Neo-Patristic exegetes attend also to these later declarations, but they interpret them to have stressed different aspects of biblical exegesis without limiting the scope of divine inspiration as defined in the above quotation from Providentissimus Deus, and they find that the interpretations given to these later documents by historical-critics show an evident ambiguity and lack of scientific precision.

        16.  Historical-critics believe that the widespread, almost continuous inconsistencies, conflicts, awkward constructions, and unfactual statements, especially as regards seemingly historical accounts, which they claim to have discovered in the inspired text give credibility to the historical-critical interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Historical-critics do go back over these claimed discoveries, so as to reject some and reorganize others, but it is the overall increase in the number of cracks thought to have been discovered in the text that has made their field advance. On the contrary, neo-Patristic exegetes presuppose the historical inerrancy of the inspired text, and so, while they are quite interested in probing the literary forms used, they, nevertheless, undertake to defend the text from alleged historical errors and contradictions between one passage and another, just as did the Fathers of the Church. Catholic historical-critics are prone easily to accept incongruities in the biblical text and to catalogue them neatly in categories of their own creation. Neo-Patristic interpreters are often amazed at the readiness of historical-critics to see conflicts even where the apparent problems can be resolved without much effort. This does not mean that neo-Patristic scholars claim that they can resolve every conflict that has been raised, or that historical-criticism has not opened up a challenging new field of study, but it does underscore a radical difference of approach. For the historical-critic, whatever in the biblical text has so far revealed no inconsistencies to their critical gaze stands as a kind of residue not exempt from continuing study, while, for the neo-Patristic researcher, the biblical text is basically consistent, and whatever problems of consistency have not been resolved stand as a residue that continues to be worked on, realizing, as St. Augustine pointed out long ago, that no one can expect to resolve all the problems, seeing that some of them have been deliberately planted by the Holy Spirit in the biblical text in order to incite the study of them.

        17.  Catholic historical-critics think that concerted efforts to defend the historical consistency of the biblical text represent, not a scientific approach, but rather the outlook of biblical "fundamentalism." Thus, e.g., David Stanley avers: "If we are to avoid the fundamentalist mentality, we must be on our guard against the superficial conclusion that, because one is forced to admit that certain details in an Evangelist's narrative (or even its general framework) are due to the literary form used or to his specific purpose, the whole story has been invented. Such a `black-or-white' attitude is simply due to the failure of a modern, Occidental mind to comprehend the Semitic view evinced by the Evangelist. Finally, it will not infrequently happen that, after the most patient analysis, we cannot decide with any certainty what actually happened, and we must content ourselves with such imprecision." 33 Or again: "The problem posed by certain literary forms in our Gospels is in no sense to be regarded as one of reconciling the `history' with the Christology. Once we grant the supreme truth of the Incarnation with all its consequences, the Christology is the history." 34 The short answers to these statements are as follows. In the first place, opposition to Stanley's notion of the literary form of Gospel history has been part of the Catholic exegetical tradition for nineteen centuries, while "fundamentalism" has its origins in the Protestant Reformation and dates, as a term, only from the American Biblical Congress which was held in Niagara, New York, in 1895. In the second place, it is not a question of a "`black-or-white' attitude"; it is rather a question of whether David Stanley understood what history is and what history is not. An imaginary scene, such as form-critics project, is not an account of reality, even if it was occasioned by a real event. In the third place, even the most patient analysis is not conclusive if it is not correctly carried out. In the fourth place, Catholic Christology is based upon real history. If the historical reality of the Incarnation, as it is described in Matthew and Luke, is taken away, there is no way to replace the Incarnation as a real happening and as a real object of Christian faith. Again we come back to the question of what is real history and of how Catholic faith is based upon historical reality.

        18.  Descartes was correct in excluding from his method of universal methodic doubt "those things that concern our faith and the conduct of life," and when he allowed that "the same thing which might possibly seem very imperfect with some semblance of reason if regarded by itself, is found to be very perfect if regarded as part of the whole universe." He acknowledged a certitude of Christian faith made possible through the infusion by God of "a certain internal light" by which what He has revealed can be perceived, and he saw this as knowledge that is certified, because "it is clearly impossible that He should lie: a fact more certain than any natural light and often indeed more evident than it on account of the light of grace." 35 If Descartes' followers had understood these two insights, perhaps there would not have arisen the naturalism that has so narrowed the vision of empirical scientists and the rationalism that has spawned such a long series of attacks on the truth of Sacred Scripture. Descartes saw a place in the real world for supernatural phenomena that do not fit into what rationalists call the "world-view of modern man," an outlook that came to be enshrined in the 1890s in the method of the history of religions school, from which have sprung the Old Testament form-criticism of Hermann Gunkel with his Genesis (1901) and the New Testament form-criticism of, among others, Rudolf Bultmann with his Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1921). 36 Both of these works and many like them have been acclaimed as representing the "modern scientific approach" to biblical interpretation, but are they really scientific?

        19.  Hermann Gunkel declared in 1901 that, for the modern historian, the book of Genesis is legend, not history. 37 By legend he understands "a popular, long-transmitted, poetic account dealing with past persons or events." 38 Legend, he notes, is not real history. "The most obvious characteristic of legend is that it frequently reports extraordinary things incredible to us. The reality of this poetry differs from the reality pertinent to prosaic life and ancient Israel also considered many things possible that seem impossible to us. Thus, Genesis reports many things that contradict our advanced knowledge." 39 And so he states his principle: "Following our modern historical world-view, truly not an imaginative construct but based on the observation of facts, we consider the other view entirely impossible." 40 He does not feel that his modern world-view of the accounts in Genesis to be detrimental to Christian faith. First of all, because of the nature of legend: "Legend is not a lie. Instead it is a specific genre of literature." 41 He cannot understand why any Christian should be hesitant to accept the existence of legends in the book of Genesis. "The question of whether the accounts of Genesis are history or legend does not involve belief or unbelief, but simply better understanding. It has been objected that Jesus and the apostles apparently regarded these accounts as reality and not poetry. Certainly. But NT figures had no particular stance regarding such questions. Instead, they shared the opinions of their time. We may not, therefore, seek information in the NT concerning questions of the history of OT literature." 42

        20.  Contemporary scientists have difficulty in providing an exact definition of what they mean by "science," but they do stress that the word signifies "knowledge obtained and tested through the use of the scientific method" (Webster's). Thus, for instance, Fergus Wood observes: "In a general sense, the term scientific method may be applied to processes of establishing the truth of widely diverse propositions of seemingly unscientific nature by resort to the demonstrative methods of science. In general, scientific method entails those processes of logical reasoning by which the aggregate of all truth is rigorously established." 43 Has the form-criticism of Hermann Gunkel and his followers added to the aggregate of all truth regarding the Bible? Is it really and objectively true, as he says, that the book of Genesis is legend, not history? Does it really not make any difference to Christian faith whether Genesis is history or legend? Is it true that the belief of Jesus in the historical reality of the Genesis accounts was an error due to the limitations of his time and culture? The question of reality is central to the whole issue of whether the form-critical method is scientific or not, and the principal reason for which modern scientists have difficulty in defining the word "science" is that they tend to leave the concept of reality out of the definition. On an analytical level, "science" can be properly defined as "the knowledge of reality as such." 44 While the common, ordinary use of human intelligence in addressing reality is already common sense, that is, "common science," the knowledge of reality arrived at through the use of precise distinctions and a rigorous reasoning method is the "technical science" to which the word "science" usually refers. And it is its precise adherence to the concept of reality that protects science from straying into such non-scientific realms of thought as fantasy, illusion, bias, and pseudoscience.

        21.  Gunkel is touching on the notion of reality where he classifies the accounts in the book of Genesis to be legend, not history, and where he says that many of the events recounted in Genesis are "entirely impossible" (no. 19 above). The basis of this judgment is his adherence to what he calls the "modern historical world-view," an outlook which has its origins in the presuppositions of deism, naturalism, rationalism, and modernism, attitudes that are simply assumed without proof. According to the presupposition of the deist, God cannot intervene in the world of created nature, and, therefore, the preternatural events described in Genesis are deemed impossible. According to the presupposition of the naturalist in religion, nature is a closed system that does not admit of outside interference, and, therefore, many of the accounts of Genesis are incredible. According to the presupposition of the rationalist, nothing is accepted as real that cannot be demonstrated from natural reason, and, therefore, many of the accounts of Genesis are automatically assumed to be unreal. According to the presupposition of the modernist, the marvelous accounts of Genesis are constructs deriving from the religious imagination, and, therefore, are unacceptable to the belief of modern man. Gunkel subscribed to all of these presuppositions, and they led him to assume without sufficient reason that the accounts of Genesis are legends, not history. For Gunkel a myth is simply "a story of the gods." He finds that myths appear in Genesis only "in faded colors" for the reason that they have been reduced by Israel's monotheism to events "in which God acts alone" or "in which the story takes place between God and people." 45 For Gunkel, the one true God does not really act in history, and this view is deism. Gunkel's method also reflects naturalism where he tells us that "a series of myths can be understood in terms of a natural event often or regularly occurring in the real world which provided the palette for an account of such an event in the primordium." 46 This means that, for Gunkel, alleged acts of God are not located "in the real world." But Gunkel is also a rationalist, as he tells us himself. "In many cases, we too, whose worship withstood a powerful purification in the Reformation and again in Rationalism, do not, or only partially, understand the original meaning of what we see and hear in our churches." 47 How much of Christian worship did manage to survive the "purification" of rationalism in Gunkel's mind is a big question, but it is obvious that the action of God in the reality of this world did not. And modernism reigns also behind his "modern historical point of view." He finds that those legends of Genesis created out of a desire "to explain something" are characteristic of the childish mode of thinking and reasoning, 48 while others arose as "pure products of the imagination," in a manner that he calls "novelistic," or even "fairy-tale-like." 49 Yet, he explains, the originators of these legends did not deliberately intend to deceive. "Legend stems from times and circles which did not yet have the intellectual ability to distinguish between fiction and reality." 50

        22.  In the Old Testament form-criticism of Hermann Gunkel the accounts in the book of Genesis are legends, not history. Somewhat later, when the form-criticism of the Gospels arose in the early 1920s, the accounts in the Gospels were also assumed to be "fiction, not history." These form-critical assumptions are opposed by neo-Patristic researchers on the basis of nineteen centuries of Catholic biblical scholarship. The most basic issue is the question of reality. Catholic faith is an affirmation of the reality of its object. This means that Catholic faith, while it is primarily and per se an affirmation of the dogmas of Catholic faith, is also, secondarily and per accidens, an affirmation of the reality of what is stated in Sacred Scripture rightly understood. Therefore, what seem to be presented in Sacred Scripture as historical accounts are to be defended as historical accounts unless the contrary is proved to be true, both because of the presence of divine inspiration and because what is contained in the biblical accounts is recognized to be in the one continuum of reality that is first known from natural awareness and experience. Central to this whole discussion is the notion of historical reality. We contend that science is science only to the extent that its medium of thought is recognized and defined, and, therefore, that historical science is historical science only to the extent that the historical medium of thought is recognized and defined in the mind of the historian. The frame of reference in the mind of the historian is his historical present. Neo-Patristic exegetes contend that the awareness in the mind of the biblical scholar of the presence of the one true God, of the God who presents Himself in the Sacred Scriptures, is necessary for the scientific interpretation of the Scriptures. Gunkel makes a patronizing reference to the "providence of God" in the final sentence of his Introduction without endorsing the idea, 51 and in his form-criticism every mention of the action of God in history is deemed "mythical." Patristic exegesis, on the contrary, is built upon the awareness of the presence of God, now and in the past. And neo-Patristic exegesis critically examines and rejects evidences of deism, naturalism, rationalism, and modernism in the mental frameworks of form-critics. Thus, for neo-Patristic researchers, the "criticism" in historical criticism, taken as an acceptable approach, requires study of mental frameworks as well as of biblical texts. Especially to be criticized is the form-critical assumption that supernatural events are "unscientific." We shall examine whether this presupposition of naturalism is not a confusion of historical method with the special methods of the natural sciences. In the historical rise of the historical-critical school, literary-criticism led to form-criticism through the influence of Hermann Gunkel and others. In the rise of the neo-Patristic school, it is hoped that a healthy criticism of the historical-critical method will lead to a broad acceptance of the traditional Four Senses of Sacred Scripture, with special emphasis on the historical sense. The great thrust of neo-Patristic exegesis derives from the greatly expanded horizon of historical research and methodology, with all of the challenges that this brings to the Patristic approach, and thus, in the opening up of new dimensions of meaning in the sacred text to traditionally oriented exegetes as they meet the challenges presented by modern biblical scholarship.

(To be continued)


1. "Criticism," in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1996).

2. S. Lyonnet, "Critica biblica," in the Enciclopedia cattolica, vol. 4 (Sansoni: Florence, 1950), 928-929.

3. "Criticism," in L. Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology, (Eng. ed., Desclée: New York, 1965).

4. Cf. Divino afflante Spiritu, no. 16 (EB 547).

5. "Quantum momentum in eiusmodi critice sit collocandum, scite monuit Augustinus, cum inter praecepta Sacrorum Librorum studioso inculcanda curam emendati textus habendi primo loco posuit. `Codicibus emendandis - ita ille ait clarissimus Ecclesiae Doctor - primitus debet invigilare sollertia eorum qui Scripturas Divinas nosse desiderant, ut emendatis non emendati cedant.' Hodie vero haec ars, quae critices textualis nomine venit et in edendis profanis scriptionibus magna cum laude et fructu adhibetur, in Libris quoque Sacris, ob ipsam reverentiam divino eloquio debitam, iure optimo exercetur. Id enim ex instituto suo praestat, ut textum sacrum, quantum fieri potest, quam perfectissime restituat, a depravationibus infirmitate amanuensiium illatis eum expurget, eumque a glossis et lacunis, a verborum inversionibus ac repetitionibus ab aliisque omne genus mendis, quae in litteras per multa saecula traditas irrepere solent, pro viribus liberet" (Divino afflante Spiritu, no. 17 [EB 548].

6. Cf. L. Vaganay, "Catholic Exegesis," in A. Robert - A. Tricot, Guide to the Bible (Desclée: New York, 1960), 738-743.

7. R.A. Dyson and R.F. MacKenzie, "Higher Criticism," in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Thomas Nelson and Sons: London, 1953), nos. 43d and 43f. Cf. R. Simon, Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (Paris, 1678), and his other writings.

8. Dyson and MacKenzie, ibid., no. 43f.

9. S. Lyonnet, "Critica biblica," loc. cit., 929.

10. "Hos autem ipsos, eiusdem rei gratia, doctiores esse oportet atque exercitatiores in vera artis criticae disciplina: perperam enim et cum religionis damno inductum est artificium, nomine honestatum criticae sublimioris, quo, ex solis internis, uti loquuntur, rationibus, cuiuspiam libri origo, integritas, auctoritas diiudicata emergant. Contra perspicuum est, in quaestionibus rei historicae, cuiusmodi origo et conservatio librorum, historiae testimonia valere pre ceteris, eaque esse quam studiosissime et conquirenda et excutienda: illas vero rationes internas plerumque non esse tanti, ut in causam, nisi ad quamdam confirmationem, possint advocari. Secus si fiat, magna profecto consequentur incommoda. Nam hostibus religionis plus confidentiae futurum est ut sacrorum authenticitatem Librorum impetant et discerpant: illud ipsum quod extollunt genus criticae sublimioris, eo demum recidet, ut suum quisque studium praeiudicatamque opinionem interpretando sectentur: inde neque Scripturis quaesitum lumen accedet, neque ulla doctrinae oritura utilitas est, sed certa illa patebit erroris nota, quae est varietas et dissimilitudo sentiendi, ut iam ipsi sunt documento huiusce novae principes disciplinae: inde etiam, quia plerique infecti sunt vanae philosophiae et rationalismi placitis, ideo prophetias, miracula, cetera quaecumque naturae ordinem superent, ex sacris Libris dimovere non verebuntur" (Providentissimus Deus, EB 119).

11. Divino afflante Spiritu, nos. 47-48 (EB 564-565), quoting Leo XIII, apostolic letter Vigilantiae (EB 143).

12. Equidem illorum comprobamus consilium qui, ut semet ipsos aliosque ex difficultatibus sacri codicis expediant, ad eas diluendas, omnibus studiorum et artis criticae freti subsidiis, novas vias atque rationes inquirunt; at misere a proposito aberrabunt, si decessoris Nostri praescripta neglexerint et certos fines terminosque a Patribus constitutos praeterierint" (Spiritus Paraclitus, EB 453).

13. W. Leon and B. Orchard, "The Place of the Bible in the Church," in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, no. 3j.

14. F. Aveling, "Rationalism," in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.12, 652.

15. W. Turner, History of Philosophy (Ginn: Boston, 1929), 461. Cf. ibid., 447-451, 460-461.

16. Consider the following statements of Descartes. "Now, as to the fact that in the Fourth Meditation I treated only of the mistakes made in distinguishing between the true and the false, but not of the error that occurs in the pursuit of good and evil, and touching the fact that I always excluded those things that concern our faith and the conduct of life, when I asserted that we should assent only to what we clearly and distinctly know; with these two facts the whole context of my works manifests agreement" (Descartes, "Reply to the Fourth Set of Objections," in R.M Hutchins et al., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 31, p. 162). "For although the things are dark of which our faith is said to treat, yet the grounds on which we embrace it are not obscure, but clearer than any natural light. Nay, we must distinguish between the matter or fact to which we assent, and the formal reason that constrains our will to assent to that. For it is in this reason alone that we require clearness. ... Further, it should be noted that the clearness or evidence by which our will can be constrained to assent, is twofold, one sort proceeding from our natural light, the other from divine grace. But though the matters be obscure with which our faith is said to deal, nevertheless, this is understood to hold only of the fact or matter of which it treats, and it is not meant that at the formal reason on account of which we assent to matters of faith is obscure; for, on the other hand, this formal reason consists in a certain internal light, and it is when God supernaturally fills us with this illumination that we are confident that what is proposed for our belief has been revealed by Him Himself, and that is clearly impossible that He should lie: a fact more certain than any natural light and often indeed more evident than it on account of the light of grace" (Descartes. "Reply to the Second Set of Objections," loc. cit., p. 125). "For the same thing which might possibly seem very imperfect with some semblance of reason if regarded by itself, is found to be very perfect if regarded as part of the whole universe; and although, since I resolved to doubt all things, I as yet have only known certainly my own existence and that of God, nevertheless, since I have recognized the infinite power of God, I cannot deny that He may have produced many other things, or at least that He has the power of producing them, so that I may obtain a place as a part of a great universe" (Descartes, "Meditation IV," loc. cit., p. 90).

17. While rationalism is based essentially upon the idea that certified knowledge results only from logical deductions from innate principles of the human mind, empiricism holds that all certified knowledge is based upon sense perception.

18. Cf. Turner, op. cit., 494-495.

19. Aveling, ibid.

20. Aveling, ibid.

21. B. Blanshard, "Rationalism," in the Encyclopedia Americana (1967 international edition), vol. 23, p. 230c.

22. Blanshard, ibid.

23. Among the most significant German rationalist critiques of this period were the following: H.S. Reimarus, Apologia for the Rational Worshippers of God (1768); H.E.G. Paulus, Commentary on the First Three Gospels (1800-1804), and Manual of Exegesis (1830); D.G. Strauss, Life of Jesus (1835-1836); B. Bauer, (writings from 1840); F.C. Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ (1845); F. Schleiermacher, Life of Jesus 1864); J. Weiss, The Preaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God (1892); W. Wrede, The Messianic Secret in the Gospels (1901); A. von Harnack, various works, including The Essence of Christianity (1900), and The Gospel and the Church (1902); and A. Schweitzer, Sketch of the Life of Jesus (1901), and The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). An extended critique of these and other rationalist works of the same period may be seen in G. Ricciotti, Eng. trans., The Life of Christ (unabridged edition, Bruce: Milwaukee, 1947), pp. 179-216).

24. H. Gunkel, Genesis (Göttingen, 1901); Eng. trans. of the of the 3d revised edition (1910), Genesis (Mercer: Macon, Georgia, 1997).

25. E.W. Nicholson, "Foreword to the English Translation" of H. Gunkel, Genesis, p. [3].

26. Nicholson, ibid., [4]-[5].

27. Nicholson, ibid., [6]-[7]. Gunkel named this method Formgeschichte, that is, "form-history," but it is usually called in English "form-criticism," just as the German Redaktionsgeschichte, that is, "redaction-history," is usually translated as "redaction-criticism." It would be interesting to review the historical reasons for this twist of terminology.

28. A. Suelzer and J. Kselman, "Modern Old Testament Criticism," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), p. 1121, no. 33.

29. A. Suelzer - J. Kselman, ibid., no. 35.

30. The original French title of Lagrange's book is La methode historique surtout à propos de l'Ancien Testament (Paris, 1905). In fact, the book does not take up in analytical fashion the questions of "What is history?" and "What is historical method?" And yet these two questions pervade his entire use of the historical-critical method. Nor does he undertake to define, in relation to his study, the terms "science" and "scientific method," and that omission opened the door to a certain lack of conceptual precision which seems to have ever since characterized the use of the method by Catholic exegetes. It may be for this reason that the English translator changed the wording of the title from "Historical Method etc." to "Historical Criticism and the Old Testament."

31. See no. 12 above.

32. "Etenim libri omnes atque integri, quos Ecclesia tamquam sacros et canonicos recipit, cum omnibus suis partibus, Spiritu Sancto dictante, conscripti sunt; tantum vero abest ut divinae inspirationi error ullus subesse possit, ut ea per se ipsa, non modo errorem excludat omnem, sed tam necessario excludat et respuat, quam necessarium est, Deum, summam Veritatem, nullius omnino erroris auctorem esse. Haec est antiqua et constans fides Ecclesiae, sollemni etiam sententia in Conciliis definita Florentino et Tridentino; confirmata denique atque expressius declarata in Concilio Vaticano .... (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 18 November 1893 - EB 124-125).

33. D.Stanley, "The Conception of Our Gospels as Salvation History," in Theological Studies, vol. 20 (1959), p. 577.

34. Stanley, ibid., 584.

35. See note 16 above.

36. Eng. trans. of the 3d German edition (1958), R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Blackwell: Oxford, 1963).

37. "Does Genesis recount history or legend? This is no longer a question for the modern historian. ... Uncivilized people do not write history. Incapable of objectively interpreting their experiences, they have no interest in reliably transmitting the events of their time to posterity. Their experiences become discolored under their hand; experience and imagination intermingle. They are able to present historical events only in poetic form, in songs and legends. Only at a certain stage of culture does objectivity mature to the point and the drive to communicate one's own experiences to posterity becomes so great that historiography can arise" (H. Gunkel, Genesis (English edition), vii.

38. Gunkel, ibid., viii.

39. Gunkel, ibid., ix.

40. Gunkel, ibid., x.

41. Gunkel, ibid., vii.

42. Gunkel, ibid., viii.

43. F.J. Wood, "Scientific Method," in the Encyclopedia Americana (a967), p. 418A.

44. This precise definition is analyzed at length in J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology (2d printing, Tan: Rockford, 1991), pp. 34-56.

45. Gunkel, ibid., xii-xiii.

46. Gunkel, ibid.

47. Gunkel, ibid., xx.

48. Gunkel, ibid., xxi. Cf. ibid., lxvii, lxix.

49. Gunkel, ibid., xxiii.

50. Gunkel, ibid., xxvi.

51. "One will be unable, however, to prevent the pious observer who has reached this conclusion from recognizing this unity in the variety of the history of Israel's religion as the providence of God who once spoke childishly to children and then maturely to adults" (Gunkel, ibid., p. lxxxvi. "Genesis moves from a crass mythology to a belief in providence very attractive to us moderns" (ibid., lix).

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