Historical-Critical Scripture Studies and the Catholic Faith

Author: Michael Waldstein

Historical-Critical Scripture Studies and the Catholic Faith

(All sides involved in the dramatic struggle over the meanings of the Scriptures are tempted to take illegitimate shortcuts.)

by Michael Waldstein

The influx of modern Scripture studies into the Catholic Church in many ways resembled the influx of Aristotelianism in the 13th century. In both instances, the Church encountered a form that was laden with presuppositions and interpretations inimical to the Catholic Faith. Historical-critical exegesis had been practiced by liberal Protestants steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, joined with various currents of German philosophy, long before Catholics began to make their own contribution.

Nature, many liberal Protestants assumed, follows the unalterable course of its laws. Miracles are, therefore, impossible. Jesus cannot have wrought those reported in the Gospels. Nor can he have been the Son of God. Nor can his death have been salvific.

Religion is not revealed, but arises from the depths of the human heart. Dogmas can not, therefore, claim any permanent validity. Nor can any ecclesiastical office teach them in a binding way. As Kant put it, binding dogmatic teaching is "a crime against humanity because it is the original vocation of humanity to progress to enlightenment-i.e., in self-impelled knowledge that has cast off the tutelage of all external authority" (Kant, , p. 488). Scripture is a collection of books produced, like any other collection, by mere human beings, without the miracle of inspiration. And hence the method for interpreting it cannot differ from the method of interpreting any other text.

It is entirely understandable that the reaction of the Church authorities and of traditional Catholic theology to the encroachment of such ideas resembled its reaction to the influx of Muslim Aristotelianism. It was only when scholars began to sort out valid insights that the situation began to change. Vatican II was able to face the new approach to Scripture with greater equanimity. The decades since then have seen a veritable explosion of Catholic contributions to historical-critical Scripture studies.


It was a great misfortune in the development of historical- critical exegesis that the most vigorous and influential effort to overcome the defects of liberal Protestantism was Rudolf Bultmann.

Bultmann became an implacable enemy of liberal Protestant exegesis when he realized that it had cast aside the very center of the Christian faith: definitive salvation offered by God's gratuitous love in Jesus Christ.

Yet, when he proposed his own alternative, he did so in the frame- work of Neo-Kantian philosophy -- which led exegesis from the frying pan into the fire.

According to Bultmann's Neo-Kantian philosophy, the world that surrounds us, the world studied by natural science, is not a real world. It is a mere product of the human mind. Even more: it is a world which flows specifically from human sin. For sin, which is resistance against God's word, finds its supreme expressions in the self-sufficient mechanism of the material world in which no room can be found for God.

Although this world is a mere construct of the sinful human mind, according to this philosophy, and not something objectively real, we cannot avoid it. As children of the twentieth century we necessarily see the world as modern science sees it. As historians of objective events, we are condemned to viewing the past according to the laws inherent in the sinful scientific cosmos. Thus, again, there are no miracles, no divinity of Jesus, no atoning sacrifice on the cross, no revealed truths and no objective inspiration of Scripture. For the historian, Scripture is a purely human book, a curious amalgam of magical and mythical religious dreams and speculations from antiquity.

Since we unavoidably construct our "world," including the past, according to the patterns of twentieth century science, the objective history of Jesus cannot be what is important for the believer. As a figure found in the material world, studied scientifically by the critical historian, Jesus is as much a sinful product of the human mind as the atoms swirling under our feet.

God's saving revelation lies on a completely different level. It is found in the existential impact of Scripture when Scripture is preached as the Word of God. This impact cannot be spelled out in dogmatic form: to do so would be to fall back into the mechanism of sin, the mechanism of security, control and resistance to the call of God. Salvation [does he mean revelation?] is a purely contentless divine jolt that frees us from clinging to the certainties of the world of sin while, at the same time, leaving us immersed in these certainties. , simultaneously just and a sinner, as Luther put it.

In this way Bultmann left the rationalism of liberal Protestant exegesis completely intact, even though he condemned it, at the same time, as a sin. He simply added a second element, the element of the unutterable, indescribable jolt that reverberates in our existence when the Word of God is preached. As the historical Jesus, Jesus is part of the world of sin; as the preached Jesus, He is the saving Word of God.

Bultmann's "solution" of the crisis of liberal Protestant exegesis bears a striking resemblance to the separation between two orders of truth posited by Muslim commentators of Aristotle and the Latin Averrroists. It is also uncannily reminiscent of the nightmares of ancient Gnosticism. Like Bultmann, the Gnostics saw the objective cosmos as a place of profound evil. While Bultmann's cosmos is a product of the human mind, the Gnostic cosmos is the product of the wicked creator-God spoken of in Genesis; it is dominated by evil powers, vile beyond description. As in Bultmann, salvation comes through a "call of awakening" that speaks of an unutterable divinity utterly beyond this evil cosmos.


It is a great sign of hope in some aspects of historical-critical exegesis that from such a blasted and desolate intellectual soil there sprang an exegete who displayed some of the deeply Catholic features found in St. Thomas Aquinas. Heinrich Schlier was one of Bultmann's most gifted students, poised to make a great name for himself, when suddenly, in 1953, he became a Catholic, to the great consternation of his teacher and fellow students.

His motives for converting throw much light on the relationship between historical-critical exegesis and the Catholic Faith. For this reason I will quote him at some length.

"Circumstances, meetings, and experiences... cooperated to make me Catholic in outlook, but the impulse which decided me came from the New Testament, the interpretation of which had become my profession. The New Testament gradually made me ask whether the Lutheran creed, and the new Evangelical faith which deviates considerably from this creed, agreed with this witness. Little by little it convinced me that the Church it had in mind was the Roman Catholic Church. Thus my way to the Church was a truly Protestant one, if I may so express it...

"In this connection I must mention one other thing. It was the New Testament subjected to an impartial historical interpretation which led me to the Church. This does not contradict what I later affirmed when I said that any interpretation of the Holy Scripture must be in the spirit of the Church, if it is to be a true interpretation. For the spirit of the Church includes also the impartiality of genuine historical research. And this is carried out, too, not in a spirit of slavery to fear, but of sonship. Historical research really objectively open to historical phenomena is also a means of illuminating the truth. Thus it, too, can discover the Church and be a way to her. For this reason I am still grateful to those who introduced me to this work.

"But exactly what was it that the New Testament revealed to me, as little by little, it rendered the Church and her faith more visible to me?... The first (insight) if I arrange my thoughts somewhat objectively, was this: The New Testament itself recognizes and propounds the historical fact of the unfolding and development of the apostolic deposit of faith which is so fundamental to the understanding of tradition in its wider sense. In the New Testament Christ's free giving of himself through the Holy Spirit in the Church is in 'principle' captured and documented; that is to say, we find its origin and beginning there. And it manifests itself in connection with the apostolic heritage, which cannot be contained only in the New Testament writings, (but) more and more in the total tradition of the Church to this day.

"Otherwise the development of the 'Jesus tradition' apart from the gospels as well as within them cannot be theologically explicable. One can only understand it as the 'self-exegesis' of the Logos, Jesus Christ himself through the Holy Spirit through the faith of the Church. This is particularly obvious in the Fourth Gospel.

"The process of the development of the primal events can also be seen in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. To cite one example, this is not only visible in the development of this concept of the Church but in the development of the actual historical phenomenon of the Church. In the pastoral letters, one is already faced with reflections upon the factual basis of a developing tradition, reflections induced by a new situation in the Church.

"Thus, no one can deny that the New Testament recognizes the process of the development of both the historical phenomena in themselves and the understanding of them. Research in historical criticism has made us conscious of this fact... in one way or another, the process of which Christ hands himself on in a self- explaining tradition becomes manifest in the New Testament.

"...[The New Testament] affirms implicitly that the fundamental principle which the Roman Catholic Church unerringly teaches was operative in apostolic times, namely, the principle of the Church's everlasting identity with herself maintained by the help of the Holy Spirit. To express it in another way, this is the fundamental principle of the one and undivided tradition.

"...(The Church) is always more than the sum of her members; she is, therefore, above each individual member. In her, and through her, God demonstrates that he has entered into time to meet us; He demonstrates his will which he made manifest in the Incarnation of his Logos. In the Church and through her, as time passes, our Lord unfolds his fullness, the fullness of truth, and he continues to give himself in loving-kindness to human beings for their salvation." (H. Schlier, "A Brief Apologia" in K. Hardt, S.J., ea., , pp. 193-214).

Heinrich Schlier's life and work are particularly remarkable, because he did not come in contact with historical-critical Scripture studies as a Catholic. Being a Lutheran himself, he studied under the Lutheran Rudolf Bultmann. What led him to the Catholic Church, in fact to a profound love of the Church that speaks from every one of his writings, was precisely his historical-critical studies of the Bible. Extraordinary humility and pliability before the truth were necessary for him to make the final step of becoming a Catholic-a step that exposed him to the attacks and ridicule of many former friends and colleagues. It is a path that clearly points to the elements of truth found in historical-critical studies, even in the Bultmann circle with its disastrous philosophical premises. It bears out one of Aristotle's famous sayings, "Truth is like the proverbial barn-door which no one manages to miss entirely" (Metaphysics II, 1).


If Schlier's life and work eloquently point to the elements of truth found in historical-critical Scripture studies, the question may be asked, "What then is this thing of which so many concerned Catholics are suspicious?"

An important distinction must immediately be made, namely the distinction between historical-critical , understood as the accumulated and ever more quickly accumulating deposit of Scripture studies, and the historical-critical . The historical-critical method is not, in the first place, a set of theses about Scripture. It is defined by certain and certain used to address them.

For example, the method of form criticism, first developed by Bultmann and Dibelius, asks the question, "What was the function of a particular passage of the Gospels as it was presented to the community?" The instruments of form criticism are manifold: analysis of the literary form of a particular passage, possible relation to questions that preoccupied a community, etc.

Raising such a question and attempting to answer it with the expectation that something definite will be found presupposes, of course, not only questions and techniques, but a thesis about the Gospels. The Second Vatican Council states this thesis as follows: "The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on either by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, , and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such a fashion that they recounted to us the honest truth about Jesus" (, no. 19).

A further set of questions and techniques are implied in this text, namely, redaction criticism. This kind of criticism asks the question: "What were the principles that governed a particular writer in his selection of particular events, in synthesizing others in particular ways, etc.?" The technique, at least in the case of the synoptic Gospels, is that of comparing the different places in which parallel passages are found, their particular function in the overall outline of the text, etc.

If one understands the historical-critical method in this way as a set of questions of a certain type and a set of tools used to answer these questions, one can hardly find fault with it in principle. It is a relatively new method. A rigorous and consistent application of it cannot be found in Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance exegesis: they tended to ask different sorts of questions and employ different sorts of tools. Still, it is clearly, as such, legitimate.

The difficulty experienced by concerned Catholics when they come in contact with historical-critical Scripture scholarship lies on a different level: it lies in particular examples of historical- critical exegesis, which are unavoidably the products, not simply of the historical-critical method, but of certain philosophical and theological premises as well.


All sides involved in the dramatic struggle over the meanings of the Scriptures are tempted to take illegitimate shortcuts. For example, a teacher of philosophy, certainly not a well-trained theologian or Scripture scholar, published an alleged synthesis of the views of "a new Catholic theology founded on modern exegesis of the Bible" (see Thomas Sheehan, , June 14, 1984). The article is to be faulted in that it lumps together various exegetes and theologians. Its real purpose seems to have been, not to present a careful and attentive digest, but to legitimate the author's own views by association with various names. It was an efficacious political ploy, but a failure when measured by the standard of truth.

Some of Sheehan's opponents fell into the same temptation. His insight, and his agenda, were not sufficiently questioned and many Catholics concerned about the historical-critical approach cried out: "See, we told you! Here you have proof!"

Another illegitimate shortcut is the quick adoption of views that support one side or the other. The "Jesus Seminar" has raised much dust recently by voting on what are, and what are not, authentic words of Jesus. Such a format may be politically useful, but intellectually it is useless. Many whose general convictions inclined them toward the Seminar's conclusions took the shortcut of quickly adopting them without argument.

Conversely, one can find Catholics who are more rooted in the theological tradition quickly jumping on rather rickety exegetical bandwagons if they promise to support certain conclusions. For example, some Qumran scholars, whose expertise lies in Hebrew linguistics rather than in the study of the Gospels, have recently argued that the Gospels are translations from the Hebrew or Aramaic. Their views were all too quickly adopted by some because they hold out the promise of greater historical proximity to Jesus.

Prudence requires a conscious effort to avoid such shortcuts. What is required is a longer way. The center of our attitude towards historical-critical exegesis and its practitioners should lie in prayer for those who practice it, in prayer for figures like St. Thomas and Heinrich Schlier. It should lie in a deep peace in God's truth made manifest in his Church.

If judgment on a particular exegete is fed from this source, its tone will be charitable end patient, accompanied by openness when issues are at stake that do not endanger the essential content of the Catholic Faith. What can be avoided in this way is the tone of scathing attack, the tone of bitter nervousness, which tends to flow too much into the lives of us sinners. A lay person's verdict will often have to be, "I don't know. I would need to study this in more detail."

Such prudence in no way excludes firmness of conviction and struggle against public scandal. However, this struggle is, in the first place, the burden of those who stand in succession of the apostles, even if we may at times become impatient with them.

A graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California, Michael Waldstein has a Ph.D. from the University of Dallas, an SS.L. from the Pontifical Institute in Rome, and a Th.D. in New Testament from Harvard. At present he is Assistant Professor of the New Testament in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. A longer version of this article appeared in the July- August 1992 issue of Lay Witness.

This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639, Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.