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No. 137 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 2008



by John F. McCarthy

1. According to the 1993 document of the (reconstituted) Pontifical Biblical Commission, titled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (IBC), the historical-critical method “is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts” (p. 34).1 It is “a historical method,” says the Commission, not only because it studies the significance of ancient texts “from a historical point of view,” but also and especially “because it seeks to shed light upon the historical processes which gave rise to biblical texts.” According to this same document, the historical-critical method “is a critical method, because in each of its steps (from textual criticism to redaction-criticism) “it operates with the help of scientific criteria that seek to be as objective as possible.” Hence, “as an analytical method, it studies the biblical text in the same fashion as it would study any other ancient text and comments upon it as an expression of human discourse” (IBC, p. 37). In the following reflection I shall maintain that the historical-critical method, as it is intended by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the above-described document (IBC), especially as regards the phases of literary criticism and form-criticism (genre-criticism), is neither scientific nor historical, and its constant use of rationalist presuppositions rules out any real objectivity in its conclusions. The Commission claims that the historical-critical method, as outlined in its document of 1993, “when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori, to the effect that any concomitant a priori principles would not pertain to the method itself, but rather “to certain hermeneutical choices which govern the interpretation and can be tendentious.” And so, continues the Commission, “for a long time now scholars have ceased combining the method with a philosophical system” (IBC, p. 40). On the contrary, it will be my contention that Catholic historical-critical scholars have never ceased combining their method with a philosophical system, and, moreover, that in most cases these scholars have not even clearly recognized the philosophical systems that they are using.

2. As authoritative evidence for my claims, I submit some statements of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, made in a widely circulated lecture titled “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis” (BIC), delivered in New York City on January 27, 1988, and published soon afterwards in English and in other languages.2 Regarding philosophical systems, the Cardinal affirms: “At its core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among historians; it is rather a philosophical debate” (BIC, p. 16). Again he observes: “In the diachronic reading of an exegesis, its philosophic presuppositions become quite apparent” (BIC, p. 8). As to the “scientific” and “historical” character of the historical-critical method (as defined in the IBC document), the Cardinal remarks: “Now, 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. This insight should not lead us to skepticism about the method, but rather to an honest recognition of what its limits are, and perhaps how it might be purified” (BIC, p. 8). What historical criticism needs at this point, said the Cardinal, is “a criticism of criticism … based on the inherent potential of all critical thought to analyze itself,” and this implies “a self-criticism of the historical method, which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself, in continuity with and in development of the famous critique of reason by Immanuel Kant” (BIC, p. 6). Ratzinger maintained that exegesis depends upon its own history, and, therefore, it needs “a critical arrangement of its respective positions within the totality of its own history,” in order to be able to recognize “the relativity of its own judgments” and “the errors which may have crept in,” and in order to be able to “distinguish between those hypotheses which are helpful and those which are not” (BIC, p. 22). The Cardinal thus expressed the hope for a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method in which “scientific exegesis” would recognize “the philosophic element present in a great number of its ground rules,” and then begin to “reconsider the results which are based on those rules” (BIC, p. 21).

3. The Cardinal does not subscribe to Kant’s critique of reason. It seems rather to him that the main philosophical presupposition underlying the exegetical system of form-criticism developed by Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann seems to lie “in the philosophic turning point proposed by Immanuel Kant, which limits human intellectual life to the realm of the Kantian “categories,” and, by very definition, excludes interventions of God as well as any new initiative from another plane (BIC, pp. 14-15). In this view, he adds, “revelation must recede into the pure formality of the eschatological stance, which corresponds to the Kantian split” (BIC, p. 16). What Cardinal Ratzinger was proposing was the need to begin joining the tools of “historical method” with a “better philosophy which would entail fewer drawbacks foreign to the text, which would be less arbitrary, and which would offer greater possibilities for a true listening to the text itself” (BIC, p. 17). He challenged the current use by form-critical scholars of the rule that what appears to be simpler in the biblical text is more original, and what seems to be more complex is taken to be a later development. Behind this approach he espied “a simplistic transferal of science’s evolutionary model to spiritual history” (BIC, p. 10), brought into the method by the history-of-religions school (BIC, p. 14). Thus, he said, “modern exegesis,” has adopted the dictates of the so-called “modern world-view’” of natural science by which the biblical text is treated as a reality completely of this world and has thus “relegated God to the incomprehensible, the otherworldly, and the inexpressible” (BIC, pp. 17, 19). He noted that, in searching for the immediate historical context of biblical presentations, modern exegetes have lost sight of the total movement of history and the light that is shed on it by the central event of all history, which is Jesus Christ (BIC, p. 20). Again, he noted that, for the use by historical-critics of philological and scientific literary methods, “an understanding of the philosophic implications of the interpretative process is required” (BIC, p. 22), [and this understanding seems to me to be singularly absent from the PBC’s document of 1993 (IBC, p. 40), seeing that it sees no a priori in the standard interpretative process of the historical-critical method].

5. Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in his address of 1988 that the concerted efforts of a whole generation of scholars would be needed to weed out the limitations of the existing historical method from its “undeniable insights” (BIC, pp. 5-6). [And this task, I would add, would necessarily include distinguishing the true criticism of serious historical science from the criticism promoted by Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, and their followers, which has become the kind of “historical-critical method” most in use among Catholic biblical scholars today. Pope Leo XIII called this historical method a “pseudoscience,” and Pope Pius X called it “the logical fruit of Modernism.”] Thus, the Cardinal observes that the basic methodological approaches of Dibelius and Bultmann “continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis,” to the extent that their essential elements “have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.” Among these basic elements is the presupposition that “everything in the Bible develops from the Christian proclamation,” to the extent that, for Bultmann, the proclaimed word generates the scene, while all of the events presented are assumed to be secondary and mythological (BIC, p. 9). Again, it is presupposed in the methodology of both Dibelius and Bultmann that there is no continuity between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith (cf. BIC, pp. 9-10). Then there is the assumption of a “creative Christian community,” concerning which “the works of Gunkel and Bousset exerted decisive influence” (BIC, p. 13). Thus, says the Cardinal, we need to investigate, not just into Bultmann the existentialist theologian, but also into “Bultmann the exegete, who is responsible for an ever more solid consensus regarding the methodology of scientific exegesis” (BIC, p. 14).3

6. According to Cardinal Ratzinger, contemporary debate about biblical hermeneutics suffers from a reductive approach in which the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church is dismissed as mere “allegory,” and the Scholastic philos­ophy of the Middle Ages is branded as “precritical” (BIC, p. 16). Again he notes that historical criticism replaces the organic continuity of the Old and New Testaments with a principle of discontinuity and leaves out both the analogy of Scripture and the purpose that it contains (BIC, p. 20). To correct this imbalance, he continues, “exegesis must recognize itself as a historical discipline.” For this work, he adds, “the great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must be brought into the discussion,” as well as the “fundamental judgments made by the Reformers” (BIC, p. 22). Finally, he remarks, exegetes must be aware that, in their exegetical work, they do not “stand in some neutral area, above and outside of history and the Church,” as though faith itself were not a hermeneutic (BIC, pp. 22-23).

Comments on the teaching of Cardinal Ratzinger and of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission.

7. From these citations it is clear that, according to the view of Cardinal Ratzinger in 1988, the historical-critical method, proposed as “indispensable” by the (reconstituted) Pontifical Biblical Commission, and now characterized by the use of the form-critical method of Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann, is neither scientific nor historical, but is rather an uncritical application of the subjectivist philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In this form-critical expression of historical method, philosophical presuppositions are of the very essence, inasmuch as the Kantian split rules out a priori all real divine interventions in the writing of Sacred Scripture, and the biblical text is treated as a merely human product. Strangely, the PBC called its form-critical version of the historical-critical method “indispensable,” while at the same time admitting that the value and validity of this kind of historical method is under serious attack from many directions by competent scholars (IBC, pp. 29-32). In his Preface to this 1993 document, Cardinal Ratzinger, then President of the Commission, expresses the opinion that the document will be “very helpful for the important questions about the right way of under­standing Holy Scripture,” as it “takes up the paths of the encyclicals of 1893 and 1943,” but he also points out that “the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its new form after the Second Vatican Council, is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office” (BIC, pp. 26-27).

8. Since the term “historical criticism” has become somewhat ambiguous in common Catholic parlance, I am taking the name here according to the description given in the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and, therefore, as the method inherited from the higher-criticism of the nineteenth century and refined according to the form-criticism of the twentieth century. This is how the 1993 document of the PBC defines the term (cf. IBC, pp. 34-36). While the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission claims that the classic historical-critical method, including the essential elements of higher criticism and the form-critical developments of Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann, “when used objectively” ( cf. IBC, p. 39), is a truly historical method and a truly critical method, operating with the help of scientific criteria (IBC, p. 37), Cardinal Ratzinger avers that the results of this kind of historical criticism are not very scientific or historical, but rather are “an expression of their own overriding spirit” (cf. no. 2 above). The IBC notes that, while nineteenth century higher critics “expressed highly negative judgments against the Bible,” nevertheless, “for a long time now scholars have ceased combining the method with a philosophical system” (IBC, p. 40), although, it says, some writers like Rudolf Bultmann “combined form-critical studies with a biblical hermeneutic inspired by the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger” (IBC, p. 36). Now, this is a misleading statement, because Bultmann published his classic form-critical work, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, in 1921, basing his conclusions on the rationalist presuppositions of the method, and it was only many years after this that he began to use the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger to argue that a “demythologized” Christian faith could still, (to a minimal extent), survive the wreckage of the Synoptic Gospels that his form-critical method had produced. The writers of the 1993 document of the PBC seem to be totally unaware of the rationalist presuppositions of their method. More correctly, Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out the need to look into, “not just Bultmann the existentialist theologian, but also Bultmann the exegete” (BIC, p. 14).

9. Is the form-critical method recommended by the PBC in 1993 a truly historical method, as it sets out, using internal indications alone, to determine “the historical processes which gave rise to (the) biblical texts” (IBC, p. 37)? William Foxwell Albright, one of the most renowned archaeologists of the twentieth century, didn’t think so. He had the following to say about this method: “From the standpoint of the objective historian data cannot be disproved by criticism of the accidental literary framework in which they occur, un­less there are solid independent reasons for rejecting the historicity of an appreciable number of other data found in the same framework.”4 And again: “However, only modern scholars who lack both historical method and perspective can spin such a web of speculation as that with which form-critics have surrounded the Gospel tradition.”5 Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out (see no. 2 above) that the debate about modern exegesis is a philosophical, not a historical, one, as becomes apparent in the diachronic reading of examples of the exegesis. In other words, when the history of the development of modern form-critical exegesis is looked into, its rationalist presuppositions come to light. Ratzinger concentrates by way of example on the pervasive influence of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Is the form-critical method truly scientific? Cardinal Ratzinger points out that, from a distance, this kind of historical criticism is not very historical or scientific (cf. no. 2 above). In other words, its results do not represent historical science. And the Cardinal joins Albright in pointing out that various rules of the form-critical method are unscientific and unhistorical, such as consistently arguing in a circle,6 assuming in the absence of outside evidence that what seems to be simpler is, therefore, earlier, and what seems to be more complex is, therefore, a later development, as well as presupposing that the Jesus of the Gospels is mostly a product of religious fantasy and is not the Jesus of history. Cardinal Ratzinger saw in this approach, not only some false philosophies of the past, but even an attempt to transfer the model of biological evolution to the supposed evolution of ideas in Sacred Scripture (cf. no. 4 above).

10. The 1993 document claims that its form of historical criticism is a critical method inasmuch as “it operates with the help of scientific criteria that seek to be as objective as possible” (IBC, p. 37). I have quoted Cardinal Ratzinger above to the effect that the historical-critical method, as it practiced today also by Catholic exegetes, is neither historical nor scientific, and is not even critical, in that it is largely uncritical of its own method and history. The term “historical criticism” is derived historically from the fact that its users took an unbelieving approach to the Bible and treated it as a purely human work. In this sense, this historical criticism is critical in that it does not accept the “word of God” as being actually the word of God, and this kind of criticism betrays the rationalism at its foundations. More specifically, the word “critical” in “historical criticism” refers back to the “critical” approach of Immanuel Kant and the use of his “scientific criteria,” which may not be as scientific as its adherents claim. We shall undertake to examine what Kant claimed to be the criteria of science and how they pertain to the historical criticism that takes its origin from him. Following the lead of Cardinal Ratzinger, I intend to examine whether this historical criticism is a) truly historical, b) truly critical, c) truly analytical, and d) truly scientific.

11. Among the things that are needed in this discussion are clear concepts of science and history. As regards the definition of science, what seems to be lurking behind this kind of historical-critical approach is the Transcendental Aesthetic of Immanuel Kant, which limits the term “science” to phenomena bounded by space and time along the lines of empiricist philosophy. These phenomena become “objective,” while the other objects of historical science as well as of traditional philosophy and theology are relegated to the subjective and ultimately non-real. Hence, the function of the notion of reality is crucial in the whole question of science. We shall have to concentrate some attention upon the function of the notion of reality in the definition of science as we go along with this study and analyze what the 1993 document of the PBC claims to be “the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts” (cf. no. 1 above). Also the definition of history must be clarified in relation to the notion of reality.

12. Cardinal Ratzinger notes that historical criticism is not a body of scientific knowledge that applies universally in the here and now, but is rather a controversial approach containing, not only some undeniable insights, but also errors that remain out of sight when the past of this higher criticism is kept out of focus. So the Cardinal called for “a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method,” and presented some basic elements of a new synthesis which will require “the attentive and critical commitment of an entire generation.”7 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 and the invalid principles of contemporary historical criticism, especially as it is characterized by form-criticism, and they analyze historical-critical conclusions for insights that they may suggest. In this work they carry out the 1964 injunction of the original Pontifical Biblical Commission. “As occasion warrants, the exegete may look for what sound elements there may be in the ‘method of form-criticism,’ that could aptly be used for a fuller understanding of the Gospels. However, he must move with caution in this area, because the method is often interlaced with inadmissible philosophical and theological principles which frequently vitiate both the method itself and its judgments on literary questions.8

13. Neo-patristic scholars are undertaking to implement this needed program of Cardinal Ratzinger and the original PBC. They begin their study of the sacred text from two departure points: from a critical reading of modern historical-critical interp­retations in the light of Catholic exegetical tradition and from a critical examination of their own frame of reference and medium of thought. The conclusions of form-critical exegetes often suggest ideas that can become real insights by formulating correctly presuppositions that are often either non-formulated or incorrectly formulated and are, therefore, out of context in a fuller view of historical reality. This requires a clear formulation of principles of historical method in the neo-patristic scholar’s own frame of reference, which he takes especially from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as well as from an updated expression of modern historical method. As Cardinal Ratzinger says, it will take the work of at least one whole generation of scholars to bring about this change (cf. no. 6 above). In pursuing this study, neo-patristic scholars must systematically refute the outrageous conclusions of writers like Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, as they reformulate the existing principles of the form-critical method, fit it into the bigger picture of the neo-patristic method, and replace the so-called “world-view of modern man,” as promoted by writers like Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, with the world-view of the Sacred Scripture, as revealed by God.

14. It is interesting to note that, among the ten or so approaches mentioned in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church as possible ways to supplement its brand of historical criticism in our time, the method of the Four Senses of the Fathers of the Church is not included. Rather it says that “the allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today” (IBC, p. 97). But Cardinal Ratzinger says in his Preface to the same document: “On the other hand, there are also new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture” (IBC, p. 26). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which appeared in the same year as the IBC, presents the method of the Four Senses as the basic way to interpret Sacred Scripture (CCC, nos. 115-119). An issue at hand is this, that all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church upheld the historical truth and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, as do all of the pertinent papal encyclicals from 1893 to 1950.

15. What Cardinal Ratzinger calls the Kantian “philosophical turning point” of the “Kantian split,” according to which human intellectual life is considered to be limited to the realm of the Kantian categories, fits into the larger anti-Christian project of viewing all religion as a merely subjective product. Non-believers in general consider the objects of Christian faith to be religious fantasies, over and above the Kantian conclusion that all non-empirical “knowledge” is merely subjective. What Kant did was to give some intellectual justification to the rationalist supposition that every account of supernatural being or activity is a product of human fantasy. In other words, Kant gave seeming arguments to back up an anti-supernatural bias which Scripture scholars and others can nurture apart from any awareness of the Kantian categories.

16. In an analysis of the influence of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant upon the approach of contemporary scholars to biblical inerrancy, Protestant theologian David Beck observes that most historians regard Kant as “one of the most important framers of the modern mind,” especially because he synthesized empiricism and rationalism into an integrated whole, and this has caused his influence upon theology to become “unparalleled.”9 He adds that many of the arguments of those who deny the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture are drawn directly from the reasoning of Immanuel Kant.10 Beck quotes Bultmannian scholar Schubert Ogden to the effect that Kant’s thoroughgoing separation of “pure” from “practical” reason is compar­able in impact to St. Thomas Aquinas’s distinction between faith and reason, and Beck points out that any theology of inerrant biblical inspiration must refute two basic tenets of Kant’s epistemology: a) that reason and sense perception are entirely separate in operation; and b) that space, time, causality, etc., are solely functions of the mind and are not in the sense data.11 This isolation of metaphysics from factual knowledge split knowledge into two unrelated parts and placed religion in the realm of the postulated but not known, setting up autonomous man as the one who determines for himself what he will believe about God,12 as an opinion “which each man is free to hold as he finds edifying.”13 And for Kant, human freedom is a postulate of practical reason, not an objective truth known from pure reason.14 This leads Beck to conclude that the task of constructing a better epistemology than that of Kant “is extremely crucial.” 15 We shall be considering in this study how the philosophy of Immanuel Kant underlies historical criticism of the form-critical school and how it influences the use of historical criticism by Catholic biblical scholars and theologians.

17. Hence, what David Beck says here about Protestant theology applies also, to a large extent, to contemporary Catholic theology and Scripture scholarship. When Catholic biblical scholars took up historical criticism, “child of the Enlightenment,” as their approach to the interpretation of the Bible, they implicitly turned away from the epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas and of the Scholastic tradition in general, and they adopted, often unwittingly, the epistemology of Immanuel Kant and of the Enlightenment in general. In the absence of the moderate realism of the Thomist tradition, they became open to the false distinction between the factual knowledge given by sense perception alone, and metaphysical or religious opinion. Beck points out that, for many contemporary (Protestant) theologians, “the source of science is different from the source of values,” to the extent that facts are taken to be known, while metaphysical or religious values are not considered items of real knowledge, “even though they may be considered important.”16 Similarly, when Catholic theologians and biblical scholars call form-criticism “scientific exegesis,” are they not implying that the events narrated in Sacred Scripture are in the category of “values” that are not scientifically, and, therefore, not objectively, certified in themselves, and so that, as “critical historians,” they are seeking to discover only how these allegedly fictitious ideas and events arose in the human and social conscious­ness of the biblical writers? What Cardinal Ratzinger has with reason recommended is that exegetes and theologians today, in the name of biblical and theological science, re-examine from where the method of form-criticism has arisen in the minds of the form-critics.

18. An important issue is the mental frame of reference being used. Neo-patristic interpreters use and defend the great framework of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture and the approach implied in the Bible itself. Form-critics, in their reflections about the “subject-object relationship,” usually seem to ignore their own mental frame of reference, whereas, in the moderate realism of St. Thomas Aquinas, neo-patristic exegetes examine their own thoughts and images as the proximate object of their knowledge, and they know external things as the remote object of their knowledge. And so, contrary to the Kantian model, neo-patristic thinkers, confident that human minds do know external things in themselves, just as mirrors really depict external things as they are in themselves, try to be critically aware of the principles that they are using in the exegesis of Sacred Scripture. As a special task, they analyze the corpus of form-critical writings to identify the principles that form-critics are using there, in order to recognize insights and to sift out the errors that have logically followed from false or poorly defined presuppositions. They examine also and try to update the principles used in the historical and exegetical writings of the great Scholastic thinkers, especially those of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose reasoning is rock-solid for the most part, but whose data obviously need to be revised in some areas, such as those of history and natural science. As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, Immanuel Kant was certainly right in calling upon thinkers to examine and clarify the principles of their own thought (BIC, p. 6), but this project in our day must include a critical examination of Kant’s own reasoning. And so, in the next issue of Living Tradition, I shall try to present a more detailed study of the validity of Kant’s approach and the impact of his philosophy upon the historical-critical method as it is presently being practiced by form-critics.


1 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993).

2 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in Richard J. Neuhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 1-23).

3 Cf. Living Tradition 136 (July 2008), no. 16.

4 W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (2nd ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957), pp. 381-382.

5 Albright, op. cit., p. 387.

6 Albright, op. cit., p. 382.

7 Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 16-17. Cf. Living Tradition 136 (July 2008), nos. 16-17.

8 EB 647. ET: Cf. [1964] Instruction of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Historicity of the Gospels (Boston, MA: St. Paul Editions), pp. 4-5.

9 W. David Beck, “Agnosticism: Kant,” in Norman L. Geisler, ed., Biblical Errancy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), p. 53.

10 Beck, ibid., p. 72.

11 Beck, ibid.., pp. 76-77.

12 Beck, ibid., p. 54. Cf. Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 39.

13 Im. Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 39. Cf. Beck, op. cit., p. 63.

14 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949), p. 132. Cf. Beck, ibid., p. 61.

15 Beck, ibid., p. 78.

16 Cf. Beck, ibid., p. 73.

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