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
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
Two SEPARATE ORDERS OF TRUTH
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
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.
A SIGN OF HOPE
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).
WHAT IS THE HISTORICAL-CRITICAL METHOD?
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.
SHORTCUTS AND PRUDENCE
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
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,
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