Benedict XVI on Historical Criticism

Historical Criticism is one massive reality. It is manifold and variegated, and its parts are radically diverse one from the other. In fact, what the heck does the term mean?

That is a massive question itself.

I want to make one very simple note here and perhaps follow it up in days to come. Pope Benedict XVI was, as many who read him closely know, a very tricky guy. A very subtle writer and thinker. His own theology (from the Highlights of Vatican II to Introduction to sundry articles) is quite a mixed bag. More on the mixed character anon.

Let’s look at what he has to say about historical critical method on the Bible in his Jesus book. P. xv looks pretty positive: the method “is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work.” The reason is this: The Bible narrates facts not just universal ideas. Christianity is a religion of God coming historically to the world in sundry ways. Ergo, we cannot read adequately if we are ignorant of history. But the HC method is ingredient to reading history well. Ergo….

Pretty positive, no doubt. (But remember, I asked that Beast of a question: What the heck is historical criticism? That is a massive question that needs exploring. Anon.) But anyone who has read his pre-papal writings knows also of his important call for a “criticism of historical criticism”. He sounded that call – read it here – in 1988. It is a worthy article.

Furthermore, in his post-synodal exhortation, he calls for us to re-member, in(to) our exegesis, the absolutely necessary elements of Tradition, Analogy of Faith, and Magisterium. We must, that is, read the patristics and medieval and post-renaissance commentaries. We must know our Denzinger and our history of dogma. We must know the Bible as One Canonical Whole. The commentators to which I have referred are very rich and profound. Their minds are much more “biblical” than are those of the vast majority of contemporary exegetes. Benedict contends that we must re-member such approaches. Re-member: Put back in place; put together towards constituting a whole. In short, the ancient methods must form an integral part of the biblical critic’s own methodology. We are not talking, that is, only the systematist or moralist. We are talking biblical exegesis proper. Benedict is, here, reiterating the Ever Wise Pius XII. More on him anon.

If for 50 years Catholic critics have done the “HC” thing, the vast majority have not integrated into their task these other, classical approaches. Yet 50 years ago, Dei Verbum stated that one must pay “No Less Attention” to these (art. 12). Hence, a major overhaul of the practice of exgesis is necessary.

Back to B16’s tricky ways. He sounds pretty darn positive on p. xv of his text. Now, let’s just turn the page and read p. xvii:

“We have to keep in mind the limit of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the domain of hypothesis.”

BOOM. This is huge, just huge. The best any historical critic, qua such, can do is give us a hypothesis. A hypothesis about the facts that we believe.

And this is the point: Our faith is not about hypotheses. It regards facts: Ontological Facts, Moral Facts, and Historical Facts. Therefore, the historical critic can never be the source of faith for us, never the source of assurance. When Raymond Brown unfolds the dynamics of celebrations of a certain feast, he indeed brings to life many of the concrete colors and riches of a passage in John. This is – no doubt – helpful. Yet it does not supply the truth of faith. When he, on the other hand, plays fast and loose with the Dogmatic Facts of History and denies this or that Dogmatic Fact about Our Blessed Mother: Then he betrays the faith. His method is obviously flawed in such practices (perhaps others?) because he contradicts Truth Itself. See Pius X, Pascendi one of the most important encyclicals of the 20th century (fast becoming important in our day of great evil and confusion), as antidote to all such false historical thinking.

Our faith is truth, not hypothesis. And Truth is what Pope Benedict rightly tells us the biblical exegete ought ultimately to be after. For without faith, we cannot please God (Heb 11). Let’s keep reading.

Pope Benedict calls for a “Christological Hermeneutic” of the text. Such a hermeneutic

“presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely historical method,” p. xix.

Now we come to the real arrow, the sword. The act of faith is not uncertain but absolutely certain. It is not fallible but infallible. Pope Benedict is hereby contextualizing the limits of the method he has just praised.

I have said “Pope Benedict”. A final word of caution is due. Nothing in his book “Jesus” is a papal word. It is all “words of a pope,” i.e. “words of a man who happens to be pope”. Look up the phrases “papal words” and “words of a pope” on my site, in the search box. You can read previous posts on the topic. In short, the words in the volumes on Jesus have no papal authority. Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation (above linked) does have authority. The Ratzinger piece has no authority.

While we’re on the topic, let us make haste to add: Neither do the words of the Pontifical Biblical Commission have any authority. Paul VI stripped them of authority in the mid 1960’s. 1964 and earlier, the PBC had authority. But not since.

I repeat my recommendation: Buy everything you can of Cornelius a Lapide, perhaps the most worthy commentator in the past 500 years. This edition is excellent.