Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Pope Benedict on Scripture: absorbing Verbum Domini Part I - the sterile chasm between exegesis and theology

I posted a dot point summary of key points from the Pope's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Scripture, Verbum Domini last week, and now I want to start a series that tries to look more deeply at its key messages.

This is of course my own interpretation of the text, and I'm certainly open to debate and correction!

The hermeneutic of continuity and Scriptural study

So today, a look at the Pope's application of his principle of 'the hermeneutic of continuity' to Vatican II's Dei Verbum.

Essentially, Verbum Domini argues that, as with so much else of Vatican II, Dei Verbum has been read only selectively, and without proper regard for the continuity of Magisterial teaching.  It is an argument that is easier to sustain in the case of Dei Verbum, I think, than some other of the documents of Vatican II.

The Pope does not reject the validity of the historico-critical method that has so dominated academic Scriptural studies outright.  But he does provide a forthright critique of the way it has been applied, and presents a damning analysis of the destruction of faith that has resulted from its misuse.

Catholic Bible Scholarship and the Magisterium

The relationship between Biblical scholarship and the Church has been a fraught one for more than a century.

The historico-critical method was a protestant invention in its infancy.  Its primary focus is on issues such as 'how a text came into being', speculating on things like authorship and the history of the redaction of a text, as well as literary devices uses and so forth.  As such, its methods are almost inevitably rooted in rationalism and modernism, such that “higher criticism” has generally served to undermine both the historicity and authority of Scripture.

For that reason, in the early twentieth century the Pontifical Bible Commission set clear limits to its use, for example stating that the authorship of psalms Our Lord attributes to David in the New Testament cannot be questioned.

Two key encyclicals however, did encourage Catholic Bible scholarship to engage in historical and literary approaches to Scripture, namely Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943). Both allowed scientific approaches to the study of Scripture. But both also imposed strict limits on the scientific, in particular emphasising the subordination of the results of scientific inquiry to the demands of revelation.

Pope Benedict XVI reaffirms key aspects of that previous teaching (including Providentissimus Dei’s statements on scriptural inerrancy which were challenged at the Synod), and argues that they provide the necessary backdrop against which to interpret Vatican II’s teaching on Scripture:

"Against this background," he says, "one can better appreciate the great principles of interpretation proper to Catholic exegesis set forth by the Second Vatican Council, especially in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum."

Spirit of Vatican IIism and Verbum Dei

In particular Pope Benedict XVI argues that Catholic scholars took up Verbum Dei's emphasis on the study of literary genres and historical context as basic elements for understanding the meaning of the text, but essentially ignored the three overall criteria for appreciation of the Divine dimensions of the text that Verbum Dei set out, namely:
  •  attention to the unity of the whole of Scripture (canonical exegesis);
  •  the living Tradition of the Church (which the Pope makes clear includes attention to the Fathers and theologians);
  • and the 'analogy of faith'.
The result of this neglect is a ‘dualistic’ approach to Scripture, resulting in what he terms the sterile separation between exegesis and theology:

"While today’s academic exegesis, including that of Catholic scholars, is highly competent in the field of historical-critical methodology and its latest developments, it must be said that comparable attention needs to be paid to the theological dimension of the biblical texts."

The consequences for the faith

And the results of this neglect of the theological dimension of Scripture that the Pope sees are fivefold.

First, “Scripture ends up being a text belonging only to the past: “ One can draw moral consequences from it, one can learn history, but the Book as such speaks only of the past, and exegesis is no longer truly theological, but becomes pure historiography, history of literature.”

Secondly, instead of being read from the perspective of faith, rationalism creeps in, denying the reality of the miraculous: “a positivistic and secularized hermeneutic ultimately based on the conviction that the Divine does not intervene in human history. According to this hermeneutic, whenever a divine element seems present, it has to be explained in some other way, reducing everything to the human element. This leads to interpretations that deny the historicity of the divine elements...”

Thirdly, this rationalism leads to a false “spiritualization” of Christian mysteries such as the Eucharist, promoting interpretations of them that reject the specific historical context of their Revelation.

Fourthly lectio divina becomes completely divorced from theology, resulting in poor homilies and catechesis.

Finally, Scripture is no longer ‘the soul of theology’, leaving that science too, impoverished.

How does the Pope propose that these problems be overcome?  I'll look at that in the next part of this series...

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