Browse by Topic: Exegetical Heresies

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Mystery and Scandal of Sacred Scripture: A Christological Reflection

Filed under: 

“The study of the Sacred Page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.” (Dei Verbum #24)

Courtesy of Edal Anton LefterovThe Incarnation, said St. Irenaeus, is a scandal.  He borrows the term from St. Paul, where the Apostle uses the Greek skandalon to describe Jewish reaction to the idea that a crucified man could also be the longed-for Messiah.  Paul’s words are as bracing as they are instructive: “For Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block [skandalon] to Jews and folly to the Gentiles”(1 Cor 1:23).  The scandal and folly of the Cross sharpen our attention around a particular Christian doctrine at the very center of our faith as Catholics: the Incarnation, the assertion that the same God who rules sea and earth and sky, and holds all creation together in being, became a man like us in every way but sin.  This reality permeates almost everything we do as Catholics, from receiving sacramental grace poured out through the humble means of bread, water, wine, and oil, to discerning God’s active presence in our lives and in the world, to the reading and interpretation of Sacred Scripture.  This sacramental grace, this living with Christ day to day, this seeking of God’s wisdom revealed in Christ in the Sacred Scriptures; all these were folly and scandal to many in St. Paul’s time, and they remain so to many today.  But the last point in particular – the understanding of Sacred Scripture – is a particularly controversial arena of ongoing debate, controversial precisely because intimately connected with the mystery of the Incarnation.

In many ways, the Christian world in general has not fully recovered from, or addressed the implications of, the schools of what is called “historical-criticism” coming to fruition in Europe, mostly in Germany, in the 19th century.  The current Holy Father has been one of the most prominent spokesmen to address the crisis of faith that historical-critical schools gave rise to when applying their methods to the Bible beginning in the 19th century.[1]

It was in the late 18th century and then through the 19th,  that more rigorous and scientific methods were developed to ascertain a clearer picture of what has happened in the past.  For example if we are studying, say, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we might ask: how many actual manuscripts do we have of the Gallic Wars? do they disagree with one another, and if so where and why? how much did Caesar’s own interests in furthering his political standing in Rome play into portraying himself as a successful general? did such an interest perhaps lead him to exaggerate certain facts, and can this be demonstrated by appeals to archaeological or other evidence outside the text itself? what do we know about the Roman Empire and the uncivilized areas of Europe at the time that help us understand more clearly what Caesar describes?

Questions like these are natural to ask if we want an historically accurate view of something, and we have access today to an enormous number of tools to do so that previous generations and centuries did not.  In this sense, the new methods are great gifts to learning and historical research.  When it comes to the Bible, however, the situation becomes more complicated.  To begin asking in a scientifically rigorous way questions like, “Did (or how) the Exodus really happen?,” or “Did Abraham really exist?,” or, let us say, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?,” brings into play not only historical questions, but questions which have dramatic spiritual implications depending on the answer.  What if the evidence is slim?  If the answer to the last question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?,” for example, is negative, then Christians should pack up their bags and go home (see 1 Cor 15:12ff).  The direction much of the early historical criticism took (which has implications down to today) was to undermine the reliability of the Bible and thus the believability of many important Christian truths.  So: what if an historical inquiry results in a conclusion that contradicts the faith?  In principle, Catholics must say, it can’t, which is where the difficulties and debates begin.  What parts of Scripture may we count as “strictly” historical and which not?  Does the faith hang on, for example, asserting the historicity of the Book of Jonah?  Catholic scholars would say on this point, no; Jonah has a good amount of theological truth to give us despite its being more in the genre of narrative fiction, versus strict history.  The Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, however, are integral to the faith, even though many historians will admit that, on purely historical grounds (apart from faith), the Virgin Birth cannot be demonstrated.  There is also a very large gray area where lines are not so easily drawn.  It seems vital to me, for example, to assert that someone like Abraham and Moses existed and really did the things attributed to them, since the God’s salvific plan for the human race is something that takes place in history.  The faith does not simply drop down to us from above in dogmatic formulas of the Church; our dogma must emerge from the actual things God has done in history, one of which is preserve the Holy People of the Old Testament in preparation for the Messiah.  But many scholars would disagree with me there, seeing less necessity to assert the historicity of these narratives.  On the other hand, does Moses and Abraham’s historical existence necessitate every detail in the narrative of the Pentateuch being strict history, or can we not see literary art and intention and crafting of the author at work too?  Scholars will vary widely on the precise answers to this question.  We cannot here go into a more detailed explanation of the limits of “inspiration” pertaining to the Scriptures, interesting as that topic is.  What I want to point out is something even more fundamental.  The tension between how to use the tools of historical criticism and how to simultaneously affirm the truths of our faith is almost inevitable given what Catholics believe Scripture is.

The Sacred Scriptures are, on the one hand, a collection of historical documents by a vast array of writers collected together through time; using historical methods of inquiry, then, and following them out to their logical conclusions, must be valid in principle.  On the other hand, Christians also assert these documents are a divinely inspired “whole,” through which the Holy Spirit has narrated without error one single plan of salvation issuing from the Triune God.  The Bible has a human dimension and a divine dimension; it is, if you will, “fully God-inspired” and “fully man-crafted,” fully the result of the Holy Spirit’s inerrant authorship of salvation history by words and deeds, and fully the result of human art, style, intention, craft, and even weakness (see Dei Verbum #11).  If these two things seem in tension, that is because they embody in a secondary way the mystery of the Incarnation itself, the mystery of the Word of God who become Flesh, subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh but sin.  Origen strikingly says that in the Incarnation the Eternal Word “became Jesus” while in Scripture the Eternal Word “became a book.”  Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council says similarly that “the words of God expressed in human language have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took to himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (DV #13).

The problem for Catholic interpreters today is how to remain faithful to both the valid methods of historical inquiry, which have resulted in seeing much more clearly than past ages the complexity of the human dimensions of Scripture, while retaining a robust faith that all of Scripture, whatever the disparate array of particular contexts it arose out of, bears a unified witness to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.  An interpreter may, in fact, commit “Exegetical Heresies” paralleling the Christological heresies of the early centuries of Christianity.  Much 19th and 20th century exegesis tended to a kind of “Arian” exegetical heresy, focusing so narrowly on the human dimensions of Scripture that it lost sight of the divine.  The great split between the “Historical Jesus” and the “Christ of Faith” that began to be drawn so sharply is a result of this error.  Fundamentalists err on the side of a “Monophysite” exegetical heresy, wanting to speak solely and only of the way the Divine Author has  dropped down eternal truths from above into a text whose human dimensions don’t matter much and are not worth studying.  Ironically, both of these methodological errors fail in getting an accurate picture of the text (though for opposite reasons) and often end in being more a reflection of the ideological posture of the exegete.  A more subtle exegetical heresy is a “Nestorian” one, where the human and divine dimensions of the text are neatly syphoned off from one another and seen as not intrinsically related: here “exegesis” proper is done in an atmospherically sealed arena where faith gets “tabled” and conclusions are reached that might exclude, for example, the possibility of the supernatural, or contradict other elements of the Catholic faith; then “theology” proper takes the often reductionist conclusions and does its work, seen as a categorically different task.  To the Arian Exegete the divine aspect of Scripture is the skandalon of St. Paul – he wants to exclude and finds offensive the supernatural aspects (cf., for example, the Jesus Seminar).  The Fundamentalist trips over the human dimension of the text, constantly trying to see easy harmonies and do exegetical gymnastics to explain away the messiness and complexity of textual and historical issues.  The Nestorian Exegete thinks it foolishness to see the tasks of exegesis and theology as, though distinct, essentially one.  A very interesting study to make on this topic is some of the correspondence between St. Augustine and St. Jerome, when the latter was in the Holy Land making his translations into Latin of the Hebrew Bible without recourse to the Septuagint.  Jerome began to see a number of disturbing discrepancies between manuscripts, and notice where the Hebrew text differed from the Septuagint in many places.  St. Augustine, ever the stalwart theologian and pastor, chides Jerome for not using the Septuagint, which had gained authoritative prominence in the West as the source for the Latin Vulgate translation.  Jerome was attending to the human "messiness" of the text as a kind of proto-critical scholar, while Augustine was worried about the theological and pastoral implications of seeing tension and disharmony in the One Revelation of God, highlighting the "divine aspect."  Ultimately, a Catholic approach must see both dimensions in unity, reflecting the mystery and power of the Incarnation itself.

The ongoing discussion for Catholic exegetes today is exactly how to bring these two dimensions of the Sacred Text into an organic synthesis, both the human dimension which is legitimately subject to anything and everything right reason can discover, and the divine dimension which is mysteriously imbedded in, and visible through, the human.  Dei Verbum (#12) highlighted both of these necessary stages in exegesis – using critical tools and reading in the light of faith – in an authoritative way that remains a commission for Catholic exegetes today.  Benedict XVI has articulated the task, with characteristic eloquence and precision, in his 2010 post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (see especially #’s 29-39).  The task of exegeting Scripture as both human and divine testimony is ultimately one of bridging and seeing in mutual relationship the “two wings” of reason and faith which John Paul II spoke of; it is one of seeing the disparate and particular human circumstances out of which the Scriptures arose, as a developing fabric of one Divine Plan revealing the love of God in Christ; it is a task, though scandalous and foolish to the world in various ways, of seeing God reveal His Face in the Scriptures as in a mirror (DV #7), just as men gazed upon Christ when on earth and beheld the Face of the Father (Jn. 10:30).

[1] See his lecture “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 1-23; and his introductions in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, tr. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007) and Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week, From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, tr. Philip J. Whitmore (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011); see also the foreword to On the Way to Jesus Christ, tr. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius 2005), where he states his belief that “the crisis of faith in Christ in recent times began with a modified way of reading Sacred Scripture—seemingly the sole scientific way”(9); finally, see his most recent statements in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (given in response to the 2009 Synod on the Word of God), especially #’s 29-39 (available at