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No. 129 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 2007

A Neo-Patristic Approach to Biblical Inspiration

by John F. McCarthy

1. The neo-patristic approach represents a continuation of the Catholic exegetical tradition and at the same time undertakes a comprehensive correction of the current historical-critical approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The neo-patristic approach is based upon the method of the Fathers of the Church, amplified by the great Catholic theologians of medieval and modern times, and developed according to the mental framework of the Four Senses as elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas. The neo-patristic method makes use of the valid techniques of modern historical science while it critically examines historical-critical reasonings. For the purposes of the present article, I set out to present a neo-patristic understanding of the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture together with a critical examination of Catholic historical-critical ideas of the same. I have taken as historical-critical examples the essays, “The Inspiration of Scripture,” by Lionel Swain in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1969), and “Inspiration,” by Raymond F. Collins in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990). While these two monographs are not totally up to date, they are peer-reviewed by their historical-critical editors and they are typical examples of the historical-critical approach. I fully acknowledge that much valuable information is presented in these two essays, but I shall concentrate especially on some of their differences from the neo-patristic approach in order to bring out the urgent need for their replacement.

2. Divine inspiration of the Scriptures as expressed in the authentic teaching of the Church.

2A. The Council of Trent:

The sacred and holy ecumenical and general Synod of Trent . . . clearly perceiving that [the aforementioned saving] truth and moral standards are contained in the written books and in unwritten traditions which have been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the apostles themselves under the dictation of the Holy Spirit, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand, following the example of the fathers of the true faith, receives and venerates with equal devotion and reverence all of the books both of the Old and of the New Testaments, since God is the author of both, and also the traditions themselves, those that appertain both to faith and to morals, as having been dictated either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession (EB 57) .

2B. The First Vatican Council (1870):

But the Church holds these books as sacred and canonical, not because, having been put together by human industry alone, they were then approved by her authority; nor precisely because they contain revelation without error; but on account of this that, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and, as such, they have been handed down to the Church herself. Can. 4: If anyone shall not have accepted the entire books of Sacred Scripture with all their parts, just as the sacred Synod of Trent has enumerated them, as canonical and sacred, or shall have denied that they have been divinely inspired: let him be anathema (EB 77, 79).

2C. Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus (1893):

For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with divine inspiration that of itself it not only excludes all error, but also excludes and rejects it as necessarily as it is necessary that God, the supreme Truth, cannot be the author of any error whatsoever. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church, defined by solemn judgment in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the [First] Vatican Council (EB 124-125).

Hence, it makes no difference at all that it was men whom the Holy Spirit took up as his instruments for writing, as though something false could have gotten away, not, indeed, from the primary author, but from the inspired writers. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write – He so assisted them when writing – that all of the things which He ordered, and these only, they first rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed aptly and with infallible truth. Other­wise, He would not be the author of all Sacred Scripture. Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers (EB 125).

2D. Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Divino afflante Spiritu (1943):

. . . (that the Catholic commentator) not only may refute the objections of the adversaries, but also may attempt to find a solid solution which will be in full accord with the doctrine of the Church, in particular with the traditional teaching regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, and which will at the same time satisfy the certain conclusions of the profane sciences (EB 564).

2E. Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Humani generis (1950):

For some audaciously pervert the sense of the [First] Vatican Council’s definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already several times condemned, according to which the immunity from errors of Sacred Writ extends only to those things which are conveyed concerning God and moral and religious matters. They even wrongly speak of a human meaning of the Sacred Books, beneath which lies hidden a divine meaning, which they declare to be the only infallible meaning. In inter­pret­­ing Sacred Scripture, they will take no account of the analogy of faith and the ‘tradition’ of the Church. Thus they judge that the teaching of the Fathers and of the sacred Magisterium is to be put back on the scale of Sacred Scripture, as explained by the purely human reasoning of exegetes, instead of expounding Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church which Christ Our Lord has set up as guardian and interpreter of the whole deposit of divinely revealed truth. . . . There is no one who should not see how foreign all this is to the principles and norms of interpretation rightly fixed by Our Predecessors of happy memory, Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissimus, and Benedict XV in the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, and also by Ourselves in the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 612-613).

2F. The Second Vatican Council, Constitution Dei Verbum (1965):

For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more. Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures (Flannery translation, no. 11).

3. Speaking from the viewpoint of a modern historical critic, Lionel Swain avers that with the advancements of textual criticism in the sixteenth century, of literary criticism in the seventeenth century, of rationalism in the eighteenth century, and of archaeology, the natural sciences, and the more scientific study of history in the nineteenth century, “it had become increasingly evident that the assertions of the Bible could no longer be taken simply at their face value.” What he means is that many believers now saw Sacred Scripture as being erroneous in many places, and others sought to cover over “the obvious discrepancies between the discoveries of the human reason and the Bible,” or tried to reconcile various errors with its overall historicity, or just “buried their heads in the biblical sands.”1 There are problems with Swain’s historical overview. It was, in fact, not at all evident that, by the late nineteenth century, statements in the Bible “could not be taken at their face value.” In 1893 Pope Leo XIII declared it to be “the ancient and constant faith of the Church” that divine inspiration of itself excludes and rejects all error (no. 2C above). Swain here makes a kind of identification of rationalism with human reason, whereas there is an essential difference between the two. Rationalism is reasoning from false principles, especially from the false assumption that miracles and the miraculous cannot exist, and it was on the basis of this erroneous presupposition that errors and “discrepancies” were being ascribed to the Bible. Catholic exegetes and theologians were still defending the historical inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, but the historical-critical view was just beginning to creep in whereby it was assumed to be “scientifically” mistaken even to try to reconcile the apparent contradictions with one another, although good science always makes this attempt. The techniques of form-criticism, initiated by Hermann Gunkel, were arising, according to which every plausible crack in the biblical fabric was accorded an advance of the historical method and every truly historical vestige remaining in the Bible was deemed a snag to be overcome.

4. Swain goes on to affirm that the new historical criticism was combating “a negative, defensive attitude” which implicitly identified biblical truth with “scientific and historical accuracy.” And, he continues, it was in this context that various documents of the Magisterium (such as those listed in nos. 2B-2C above and others by Pope Pius X, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and Pope Benedict XV) “saw the necessity of affirming that the sacred books contained ‘revelation without error.”2 But there is an equivocation in Swain’s use of the expression “scientific and historical accuracy.” The replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and other documents of the Magisterium had made clear that the biblical genre (even of its very nature) was not limited to the material precision that modern historians often set for themselves, but here we are not dealing with a question of precision. The question is rather of historical and scientific truth or error. The Magisterium has clearly and consistently taught over the centuries that the sacred text contains no scientific or historical errors, and Swain is trying to get around that. The “negative, defensive attitude” that he mentions is a feature of Catholic apologetics that has always been functional in the Church, but which has been greatly weakened in recent times, due largely to the failure of Catholic historical critics to recognize the fallacies in the attacks made against the truth of the Scriptures in the name of history and science. The “negative, defensive attitude” that he mentions is a feature of Catholic apologetics that has always been functional in the Church, but which has been greatly weakened in recent times, due largely to the failure of Catholic historical critics to recognize the fallacies in the attacks made against the truth of the Scriptures in the name of history and science.

5. Raymond Collins also presents an historical-critical view of biblical inspiration where he says that objections to the “theory of verbal inspiration” have led most critical scholars to abandon it.3 While this statement refers directly to what he calls the “prophetic model of inspiration,” it has impact on the traditional Catholic approach. The words of Sacred Scripture are verbal expressions, and it is the traditional teaching of the Church that these words are inspired (see no. 2C above). The inspiration of Sacred Scripture refers, not to the events themselves, but to their verbal expression. And, even though “human writing processes were at work,” a discernible supernatural process was also at work, and it is plainly evident both in the rapport of faith to the teaching of Scripture and in the inerrancy of the text. The non-Catholic originators of historical criticism and of the form-critical method, such as Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, openly excluded any real divine action underlying the writing of the Scriptures, and Catholic historical critics like Raymond Collins and Lionel Swain have the burden of clearly showing how their stand significantly differs from the original rationalist position, which is plainly contrary to the perennial teaching of the Church. But no clear Catholic position emerges here. While acknowledging that the historical-critical method was “the child of the Enlightenment,” Collins points out that it brought about “the modification of traditional formulations by many Roman Catholics.” The Magisterium intervened to correct these “modifications” (see nos. 2A-2E above), but, according to Collins, “in somewhat negative fashion.”4 Thus, Collins continues, “the inerrant ‘truth’ of the Bible was deemed all-important,” but this approach, he says, has changed since Vatican II. However, Collins and other Catholic historical critics are simply exploiting an ambiguity in the wording of Dei Verbum, regarding “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.” These scholars read the text as though it means only that truth which is aimed at our salvation, but this reading is contrary to the intention of the Council, as is clearly indicated in the footnotes that the Council itself appended to these words. In fact, the footnotes of the conciliar document include references to Providentissimus Deus, exactly where it says that divine inspiration absolutely excludes any error (EB 124: see no. 2B above) and that error cannot be ascribed to the human authors as distinct from the divine Author (EB 125: see again no. 2B above.) And the same footnote references include the following judgment from Providentissimus Deus: “It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration or make God the author of such error.” Hence, the opinion that biblical inerrancy covers only that truth which pertains to our salvation cannot be sustained, as is brought out in the encyclical Humani generis of Pope Pius XII (1950), where he excludes once again “the opinion, already several times condemned, according to which the immunity from errors of Sacred Writ extends only to those things which are conveyed concerning God and moral and religious matters” (see no. 2E above).

6. Collins points out that increased data (available to historical-critical scholars) regarding the origins of the earth and of the human race “led to incompatibility between scientific knowledge and a naïve, literal reading of the creation narratives.”5 Here Collins makes almost synonymous the adjectives naïve and literal, but there is a big difference between the two. While the Galileo case is usually the grand exhibit of secular humanists on this question, the fact is that Catholic exegetical tradition has regularly cautioned against naïve readings of the Scriptures, while upholding the literal reading of the same. Modern empirical science has raised serious questions regarding the reading of the “days” of creation in Genesis 1, but the Magisterium, in the replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of June 30, 1909 (EB 324-331), has also clarified this in a very satisfying way, and it is by no means clear that the six creative interventions of God described in the first chapter of Genesis are at all incompatible with the findings of modern empirical science.6 Similarly, the reduction by historical critics of the story of Adam and Eve in Gen 2-3 to the level of religious fiction is not based upon solid historical reasoning. . While Catholic form-critics, in using the method of Gunkel and Bultmann, do not necessarily accept all of Gunkel’s and Bultmann’s outrageous conclusions, they have been singularly inept at refuting them. As far as the needed refutation of errors is concerned, the multitude of fallacies in Gunkel’s Genesis (1901) and Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) have now lain undigested in the belly of Catholic historical-criticism in the first case for more than a century and in the other for more than eighty-five years. Gunkel’s Genesis and Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition are insults to Catholic belief, but no Catholic historical critic has ever written a worthy response to either of them. The English translation of the third edition (1910) of Gunkel’s Genesis, published in 1997, can even be found on sale in many Catholic book stores mixed indiscriminately with works by solidly Catholic authors, and Bultmann is often quoted favorably in Catholic historical-critical commentaries.

7. Collins maintains that “form-criticism has demonstrated that to a large extent the books of the Bible are products of faith communities,”7 but he and other Catholic form-critics do not distinguish adequately how their notion of “creative faith communities” differs significantly from the rationalist notion of Bultmann, whose use of the term is earlier and “in possession.” Bultmann reasoned from the rationalist social theories of Émil Durkheim to his pseudo­scientific idea of the “creative Christian community,” whose religious fantasy supposedly created most of the fictitious stories that he says constitute the Gospels, but this idea has no basis in objective history. Catholics who use the Bultmannian theory of the creative Christian community have actually imported into their work a rationalist presupposition about faith communities that does great injustice to the human writers and to the text of the Bible. Émil Durkheim (1858-1917), a French agnostic writer and teacher who was very influential, for weal and for woe, in the rise of modern sociology, contrasted two basic types of society: primitive and modern. Primitive society, he said, is “mechanically” organized and depends for its cohesion on the pressure of a collective conscience, presenting “collective representations” that are independent of individual consciousness. Of these preconcepual forms, religion is said to be the clearest expression8. In his final major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), using the pre­supposition that society is anterior to the individual together with data collected from observations of the habits of Australian aborigines, Durkheim maintained that the most fundamental ideas of religion are distillations of social experience. He held that the basic and universal distinction between the sacred and the profane arises instinctively in society, and that from the felt power of the community primitive man derived gradually his sense of deity and of the binding nature of the sacred. Relative to Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge, he held that the basic categories of thought arose from the pressure of primitive community practices.9 Durkheim’s theory, however much it might apply to Australian aborigines, when it was applied by Bultmann to the early Christian Church, contradicted all historical experience and all Jewish and Christian religious belief. That Bultmann’s idea does not concur with historical science can be shown by a detailed analysis of his exegesis of the Gospels, but Catholic form-critics have not done this. When we see them explaining the origin of supposedly fictitious stories and statements in the Gospels as having arisen because of dogmatic, apologetic, or polemic needs, and other purposes of this sort, we do not, indeed, hear them claiming to be promoting the Durkheimian paradigm of the primitive and pre-rational religious community, but neither do we find them giving clear evidence that they are opposing this rationalist structure. And it is this same irrational idea that is rejected in the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis of Pope Pius X, where it rules out the modernist notion that belief in the objects of Christian faith is based ultimately upon a subjective feeling that arose instinctively in the sub­conscious of the primitive Christian community (Pascendi, no. 7). Hence, it is not that Catholic form-critics profess this error, but rather that they are so remiss in excluding it from their interpretations.

8. Collins downplays the perennial teaching of the Church as he affirms that, since the Second Vatican Council, “inerrant Scriptural ‘truth’” has not received “primary emphasis in Roman Catholic circles,” because of “a more adequate understanding of the nature of the Scriptures,” namely that they are “not primarily a source for doctrine.”10 One can well wonder at the word-manipulations and mental gymnastics that it took these “Roman Catholic circles” to arrive at this conclusion, which directly and flatly contradicts the quotations from the Magisterium that are given in number 2 above. Collins goes on to assert that concentra­tion on the inspiration of individual sentences and isolated biblical texts “can produce a type of fundamentalism.”11 The word fundamentalism applies to a group of American Protestant communities which adopted in the 1890s a brief set of propositions that they considered to be fundamental to all Christian belief, but Collins extends it here to embrace the whole traditional Catholic approach to the inerrancy of the sacred text, including that of the Fathers of the Church, the great medieval theologians, most Catholic commen­tators up to the end of the nineteenth century, and the traditional teachings of the Church as quoted above. Collins uses the new form-critical idea of literary forms to emphasize the “salvific truth” of the Bible, which, he says, “lies not so much in that its passages are without error, but in that through them God manifests his fidelity to his people, bringing them into loving union with himself.”12 Thus, biblical inerrancy recedes to a vague general theme hypothesized by the interpreter to ride above a biblical text believed to be composed mostly of fictitious stories and historical errors, but how this presupposed divine underlying sense, which alone is given the character of inerrancy, can escape the strictures of Humani generis as quoted above at no. 2E is a mystery to me.

9. Under the title of “Inspiration Today,” Swain presents a similar position to that of Collins as he explains his under­standing of the idea that “the Bible is entirely man’s work and entirely God’s work.” The concept of “God’s transcendent causality” is “truly liberating,” because “it facilitates the dissociation of the notion of inspir­ation from any one of its preconceived modes” [such as, let us say, the modes defined by the Magisterium of the Church as quoted in no. 2 above], because, he continues, “revelation affirms the fact of inspiration, but it is left for human research [for us, the exegetes], based on the data of the Scriptures themselves [which only we the exegetes can identify] to describe exactly how the Holy Spirit inspired the sacred writers.”13 Note how Pope Pius XII comments on this idea in number 2E above. But what is meant by “God’s transcendent causality”? Swain explains by drawing a parallel with the doctrine of creation, “particularly in the light of the last century’s evolutionary theories.” I think that he is referring to the theories of certain theistic evolutionists who maintain that God created the original state of the universe and then left it to evolve on its own, which is a new form of Deism. According to this parallel, God would be seen to have allowed the Scriptures to be composed and written entirely by the natural forces of human activity, but “transcendentally” they would be God’s Scriptures as well, even though there would be no discernible divine factor apart from the natural human endeavor. This idea is “truly liberating,” not only from the traditional teaching of the Church, but also from the need to defend the divine element against non-believing critics who don’t believe in it, such as the mainstream, non-Catholic historical critics of today. In other words, while Swain allows that “the actual Scriptures were written under a specific motion of the Holy Spirit related to certain charismatic functions within the people and at the service both of God and of the people,”14 he does not explain how this motion of the Holy Spirit could appear and be identified in the actual exegesis of the text, and how, therefore, it is a real element at all.


10. The neo-patristic approach follows the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture, as expressed in the decrees of the ecumenical councils, in the papal encyclicals, and in other documents of the Magisterium, as summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It maintains that the divinely revealed realities that are presented in it have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that God is the Author of Sacred Scripture, and that the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments have been written, whole and entire, with all their parts, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Dei Verbum 11; CCC 105). The neo-patristic approach holds that God used the sacred writers in such a way that they made full use of their own faculties and powers so as to be true authors, but also in such a manner that they wrote whatever He wanted written and no more (cf. Dei Verbum 11; CCC 106). This means that they were preserved from writing any historical or natural errors, either because God willed that they write such errors or that they added them on their own. Thus, the books of Sacred Scripture “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum 11; CCC 107). Since it is the teaching of the Church that biblical inspiration absolutely excludes and rejects any error (Prov. Deus, 2C above), and since it is an obligation of interpreters to refute the objections of those who deny the inerrancy of the Scriptures (Divino afflante Spiritu, 2D above), neo-patristic exegesis under­takes the time-honored task of defending biblical inerrancy in the face of difficulties raised, not only by non-believers but also by believing historical critics. Therefore, it rejects the approach which casts biblical apologetics under the name of “concordism” and “fundamentalism” and seeks to show the methodological mistakes of those who attribute errors to the sacred text. While neo-patristic scholars cannot claim to have a ready answer to every difficulty that has been or could be raised, the number of superficially presented “discrepancies” is so great at the present time that the field of correction is wide open.

11. Lionel Swain’s affirmation that in recent centuries it became increasingly evident that statements of Sacred Scripture “could no longer be taken simply at their face value,” appears to be valid only to the extent that Catholic theologians and exegetes were neglecting their duty to solve the problems raised by some modern empirical scientists and by historians, especially of the historical-critical school. It must be kept in mind that Catholic historical-critical exegetes have no intellectual tradition of their own, and they tend to look back historically, not through Catholic intellectual tradition, but through the liberal Protestant tradition, with the result that they tend to accept many of the claims made against the Catholic tradition by influential thinkers of the “Enlightenment” of the seventeenth century, of the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and of the liberal Protestant exegetes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Neo-patristic researchers keep this in mind as they examine the mental framework used by historical-critical writers. Catholic historical critics have, for the most part, rejected the mental framework used traditionally by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and by most Catholic theologians and exegetes over the centuries, with the result that they are left methodically with a largely implicit Protestant framework which, as Catholics, they can use only partially. As a result, many of the principles that they use are not well-formulated in their minds and often function in an incorrect or twisted manner. They use terms that are poorly defined, they set up conclusions that they do not clearly express, and they ignore answers that were given long ago by writers of Catholic tradition. Thus Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a widely circulated article published originally in 1989, called upon historical­critical exegetes to employ “a less arbitrary philosophy which offers greater possibilities for a true hearing of the text.”15 He pointed out that it has become imperative at this juncture of time to build a new and better synthesis of exegetical method,16 to challenge the framework of systematic presuppositions underlying the exegesis of writers like Rudolf Bultmann,17 and to get modern exegesis away from the influence of Immanuel Kant, which has reduced history to philosophy.18 It is a task of the neo-patristic method, in its critical review of the historical-critical method, to formulate and correct the poorly formulated or incorrect principles of the historical-critical method, to work with more clearly defined terms, and to recast the vague and largely implicit mental framework of Catholic form-criticism into an explicit framework of historical science.

12. In addition to the framework of the Four Senses, neo-patristic exegetes use the mental framework of Scholastic philosophy and theology, with which they conjoin the principles of a truly historical method, all of which provide for them precise definitions of terms. A methodological error characteristic of the approach of Catholic form-critics is the use of improperly defined terms, such as the words scientific, historical, critical, real, and literary form. For example, Catholic form-critics often refer to their method as being “scientific,” but they ignore the essential element of all science, which is functional adherence to the concept of reality. Catholic form-critics expound at length the “meaning” of biblical passages, but usually without any reference to whether the events they are explaining really took place or not. On the other hand, Gunkel and Bultmann clearly affirm that most of the literary forms presenting biblical events are fictional and that all of the miraculous events are simply products of religious fantasy. In many instances, and especially in the case of biblical accounts reporting dogmas of the Church, the best that Catholic form-critics can do is to be silent, but to be silent about this matter is to be unscientific in one’s approach.

13. In his encyclical letter on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, Divino afflante Spiritu (1943), Pope Pius XII refers to such analytical and clearly distinguishable literary forms of Catholic exegetical tradition as the historical, the juridical, the poetic, the didactic, and the prophetic, while form-critics introduce novel and non-analytical forms that they claim to have discovered in Sacred Scripture, such as apothegms, dominical sayings, miracle stories, legends, and myths, all of them assumed to be fictitious. These novel forms are shattering to Catholic belief in the reality of the objects of faith and of the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture. It was for this reason that then Cardinal Ratzinger, in his article of 1989, challenged the fundamental ideas of the form-critical method, called for a “radical new reflection on exegetical method,”19 and proposed some “basic elements of a new synthesis.”20 This would require, he said, a return to “the insights of the great believers of the past.”21 What we need today, he explained, is “a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself.”22 Neo-patristic scholars implement this advice in the sense that they have undertaken a process of criticism of the historical-critical method while attempting to formulate more clearly the principles of historical method itself. In this endeavor they distinguish between the valid principles of historical method in general and the many invalid principles of the “historical-critical school.” Catholic historical critics often call their method historical and scientific without defining what these words mean. In his essay quoted above, then Cardinal Ratzinger notes that “at a certain distance the observer determines to his surprise that these interpretations, which were supposed to be so strictly scientific and purely ‘historical,’ reflect their own overriding spirit, rather than the spirit of times long ago.”23 On the contrary, neo-patristic researchers seek clearly to define their terms. For instance, in my estimation, an exact definition of science is “the knowledge of reality as such,”24 and an exact definition of historical science is “the knowl­edge of past reality as such.” These definitions bring to the fore the essential importance of the concept of reality in all scientific thought. In this view, historical thinking is scientific only to the extent that the historical scientist is aware of his own scientific medium of thought, including the concept of reality. Bultmann, in his own way, understood this fact, and he resorted to an equivocal use of the idea of reality by excluding all of the objects of faith from the sphere of objective reality (Realität) and leaving to religious experience only what he called the “reality” (Wirklichkeit) of the “authentically existing man.” Catholic form-critics usually do not accept this distinction, but neither do they characteristically address the problem for the Christian preacher who has eliminated everything supernatural from his faith that Bultmann, the form-critic, was facing. Neo-patristic exegetes, on the other hand, in their examination of form-critical writings, carefully consider how the writer handles the concept of reality in relation to the objects of faith and how clearly he seems to be aware of his own medium of thought.

14. The neo-patristic method is an old approach in the sense that it retains and uses the method of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and of Catholic exegetical tradition, but it is also a new approach in that it uses the techniques of historical science to process historical-critical literature and to solve the problems that historical criticism raises against the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, that is, in a neo-patristic, line-by-line commentary on the text of Scripture, in a more exact determin­ation of its literal sense, and in a systematic search for the spiritual senses of the same. The allegorical sense reveals spiritual aspects of Christ that are otherwise hidden behind the literal sense; the tropological sense presents a pattern of application of the objective meaning to the subjective receptivity of the believer; and the anagogical sense unveils in many ways the hallmark of the divine Author of sacred writ in his three divine Persons, as well as insights into the four last things of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The neo-patristic adventure is not a negative undertaking; it is filled with new insights, and it gives a feeling of exhilaration to those who have not been content with the destructive results of a historical criticism that often claims for itself the name of “modern Scripture scholarship.”


1 L. Swain, “The Inspiration of Scripture,” in R.C. Fuller et al., editors, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1969), p. 55, col. B.

2 Swain, op. cit., p. 59, col. A.

3 Cf. R.F. Collins, “Inspiration,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, R.E. Brown et al., editors (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), p. 1028, col. B.

4 Collins, op. cit., p. 1029, col. A.

5 Collins, op. cit., p. 1029, col. A.

6 For a study of this question and a literal defense of the days of creation see J.F. McCarthy, “A Neo-Patristic Return to the First Four Days of Creation, in Living Tradition 45-50 (March 1993 to January 1994).

7 Collins, op. cit., p. 1032, col. A.

8 Cf. John M. Goering, “Durkheim, Émil,” in the Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 9 (Danbury: Americana Corp., 1980), p. 494.

9 Cf. R.A. Nisbet, “Durkheim, Émil,” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 4 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), pp. 1121-1122.

10 Collins, op. cit., p. 1030, col. B.

11 Collins, op. cit., p. 1032, col. B.

12 Collins, op. cit., p. 1033, col. B.

13 Swain, op. cit., p. 57, col. A.M

14 Swain, op. cit., p. 58, col. A.

15 J. Cardinal Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” in Richard John Newhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p.17.

16 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 21.

17 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 19.

18 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 16.

19 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 21.

20 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 17.

21 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 16.

22 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 6.

23 Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 8.

24 See J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology: Elements of a Definition (2nd printing, Rockford, IL: TAN, 1991) pp. 34-63.

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