Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 41 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 1992

by John F. McCarthy

        A NEEDED NEW APPROACH.   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in an important article published originally in German in 1989, then in English, and recently in Italian,1 has called for "a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma" in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, to be arrived at by means of self-criticism of the "historical method" being used today by exegetes and by the use of "a less arbitrary philosophy which offers a greater number of presuppositions favoring a true hearing of the text."2

        Cardinal Ratzinger observes that over the past hundred years biblical exegesis has made some great errors "and these errors have become virtually academic dogmas."3 He traces this problem to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose "basic methodological orientations determine even to this day the methodology and course of modern exegesis."4 Ratzinger finds it imperative at this juncture of time to challenge the fundamental ideas behind the method of Dibelius and Bultmann, such as the carrying over of the evolutionist model of natural science into the history and life processes of the spirit.5 Bultmann the exegete, he avers, "represents a background consensus of the scientific exegesis dominant today," and yet Bultmann was not so much a scientific as a systematic worker, whose exegetical conclusions "are not the result of historical findings but emerge from a framework of systematic presuppositions."6

        Why, Ratzinger asks, are these broad explanatory principles of Bultmann and Dibelius taken for granted and used unquestioningly by exegetes even to this day as though they were self-authenticating by the very obviousness of their application? The method seems to be situated, he says, "in the philosophical twist taken by Kant according to which the voice of being in itself cannot be heard by man.... At this level modern exegesis admits of a reduction of history to philosophy."7

        To resolve this problem, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes some "basic elements for a new synthesis,"8 which will require "the attentive and critical commitment of a whole generation."9 The process of biblical interpretation must be seen as having two steps: integration of the biblical texts "into their historical context" and then their location "in the totality of their historical unfolding, beginning from the central event, which is Christ."10

        On the level of integration into the historical context, the time is ripe for a "radical new reflection on exegetical method. Scientific exegesis must recognize that in a good number of its fundamental axioms the philosophical element is present, and it must therefore critically reconsider the results based upon these axioms." Ratzinger affirms that biblical exegesis must come to recognize itself as a historical discipline, also in the sense that its own history is part of what it is, and it needs to acquire a knowledge of how the philosophical element influences the process of interpretation.11

        On the second level, which is that of total meaning, the texts "must be integrated into a theological vision in the strict sense, based upon the experience of Revelation."12  To achieve this task it will be necessary "to introduce into the discussion the great proposals of Patristic and medieval thought," with reflection also upon "the fundamental options of the Reformation and on the choices it involved in the history of interpretation."13

        The call of Cardinal Ratzinger for a new synthesis of historical and theological methods in the process of biblical interpretation, involving a critique of biblical criticism and a reintegration of Patristic and medieval insights, comes at a time, not only when a better methodology is urgently needed, but also when the elements of a new synthesis are more available than they have ever been before. On the one hand, new and largely untried techniques of historical method can now be used for critically analyzing the literature of form-critics and other so-called "historians," while, on the other hand, the principal elements of a comprehensive framework of interpretation on both the merely historical and the mystical levels of Sacred Scripture are waiting to be used.

        Serious students of the Scriptures now have more reason than ever to be dissatisfied with a self-characterized "historical method" that leaves confused and undefined even such all-pervasive terms as "history," "historical," and "method." They are more prone than ever to reject the conclusions of a "scientific exegesis" that has never defined for itself or for its audience what the word "science" means or how its labors can seriously be called "scientific." Cardinal Ratzinger, in the article I have quoted, makes the telling observation that modern exegetes of the prevailing school are working from questionable presuppositions that they have never adequately analyzed or integrated into a method that deep thinkers can readily accept. But modern exegetes, among whom Rudolf Bultmann stands out as the supreme example, have raised epistemological questions which draw our attention to the need of a better and more complete biblical hermeneutic, and it is to the task of building such a hermeneutic that we must now dedicate ourselves.14

        SCIENTIFIC EXEGESIS AT LAST.   Cardinal Ratzinger recommends what he calls a "diachronic approach" to the results of historical-critical exegesis, by which he means, not simply taking these conclusions as timeless data, but rather seeing them in the perspective of their own history, and he notes that in historical perspective these interpretations, which seemed so scientific and purely historical, "reflect in reality the spirit of their authors rather than the spirit of the past ages."15 Let us concentrate briefly on the thought that to view the conclusions of historical-critical exegesis "in the perspective of their own history" is to see them "in reality." The word "reality" must have a very important role to play in the construction of the new biblical hermeneutic.

        Rudolf Bultmann often raised the question of "reality" in relation to Christian faith and the contents of the New Testament Scriptures. To resolve the dilemma that the question of reality raised for him, he proposed a novel meaning of Wirklichkeit, the German word for reality:  a) the reality that is known by sense experience and constitutes the real world of empirical science he called, not Wirklichkeit, but Realität, and this is the objective representation of the world in which man finds himself;  b) and he called Wirklichkeit "the reality of the historically existing man."16 This distinction enabled Bultmann to predicate reality in relation to a certain understanding of the object of faith without predicating reality in the commonly understood sense of the object of faith itself. This was a wrong answer to the question of reality, but it did address a question that for too long has escaped the critical attention of modern exegetes of the prevailing school.17

        Modern historical-critical exegetes, to the extent that they uncritically follow the method of Bultmann and make use of his presuppositions, actually cut themselves off from the reality that is objectively presented in the Scriptures along the lines of Bultmann's exclusion of Realität in the objects presented by the biblical narrative. Such exegetes, whom for the sake of brevity I shall henceforth call "form-critics,"18 seldom raise the question of reality at all, and one of the unanswered questions throughout almost the whole of their discourse is whether the biblical events which they are interpreting are real or not.

        In his speculation Rudolf Bultmann often raised the question of "history" in relation to Christian faith and the contents of the New Testament Scriptures. Again he proposed a double meaning of the German word for history, Geschichte, and he set up a radical distinction between history as Historie, which, he said, is composed of causally connected events and relationships between facts which are objectively verifiable and chronologically determinable,19 and history as Geschichte, which consists of the encounters of the "genuinely" existing human being, whose "existential constitution" ultimately signifies "to exist, to be confronted with non-being, to be able to be and ever to decide anew." Thus, for Bultmann, the question of the "historicity" of the Gospels was subjectivized into the possession by the contemporary thinker of what he called "true historicity," which was "the existential constitution of the being which necessarily exists in history."20

        Bultmann based his presuppositions regarding history and historicity upon the existentialism of Martin Heidegger and the idealism of Robin G. Collingwood. Thus he did not hesitate to affirm: "I think I may take for granted that the right question to frame with regard to the Bible - at any rate within the Church - is the question of human existence. I am driven to that by the urge to inquire existentially about my own existence. But this is a question which at bottom determines our approach to and interpretation of all historical documents. For the ultimate purpose in the study of history is to realize consciously the possibility it affords for the understanding of human existence."21

        Bultmann was challenging in the questions he asked and in the answers he suggested, even though his questions were deceiving and his answers were wrong. The question of human existence is one of the right questions to frame with regard to the Bible, but it is not the first question, and to place it first is to put the Bible out of its proper perspective, because the first question that has to be asked is the question regarding reality.

        It is a matter of observation that the first and all-pervading question that science asks about anything is the question of its reality. The fact is that the concept of reality is the general medium of all true science, so that only what is real is the object of science, and even the imaginary is studied by science under the aspect of its reality. Science arises from the moment that the knowing subject begins to realize the difference between the real and the unreal among the objects of his knowledge, and science grows as the knowing subject concentrates upon the real and excludes the unreal from his field of vision.22 Reflection upon the role of the concept of reality as the general medium of all true science leads to the following set of definitions, which are important for the elaboration of a better method of Scriptural interpretation:

Science is the knowledge of reality as such.
History is the knowledge of the past as such.
Historical science is the knowledge of past reality as such.
Theological science is the knowledge of revealed reality as such.
The science of historical theology is the knowledge of past revealed reality as such.23

        These five definitions presuppose that there is one continuum of reality which reaches to everything that is real. When Bultmann proposed a double meaning of reality, he was either denying this continuum or making it irrelevant for theology, but, in doing so, he took his speculation out of the realm of science. Bultmann's thought, the entire system of his conclusions, belongs to the realm of fiction, not of fact, and, because he speculates in his thought about reality and uses an elaborate method and terminology, the exact genre of his writings is that of pseudoscience, which looks like science but is imaginary."24

        TRUE HISTORICAL SCIENCE.   Since history is the past as such, it can be divided into fictional history and real history. Imaginary stories, for instance, belong to fictional history. In ordinary parlance, we tend to reserve the term 'history' for real events of the past, and we call unreal events 'stories.' What people usually mean by 'history' is historical science. But, when Catholic form-critics interpret the Gospels, we have difficulty in determining whether they are talking about real events or stories, because form-critics as such do not use a differentiated concept of reality - they are not scientists at work. Bultmann, on the other hand, openly considered the Gospel narratives to be fictional stories, and he sought reality in the presuppositions of his method, but, because his presuppositions were false, his conclusions were not real, and his recourse to 'history' as 'existential encounter' made him a writer of fiction.25

        Scientifically speaking, to ask questions about a text or object of some sort means to place that text or object within the focus of a mental framework and seek to draw conclusions by means of a valid logical process. An indication of the unscientific character of the form-critical method is the general lack of awareness in its practitioners of the mental framework that they are using. Bultmann's success with the method lay in his ability to manipulate unformulated principles of method and to express them in a twisted or inverted fashion. Thus, his classic work of exegesis of the Synoptic Gospels, which he entitled The History of the Synoptic Tradition,26 is actually a masterpiece of false principles and fallacious arguments which new-wave Catholic exegetes have been unable to refute, principally because they do not have the technical apparatus that is needed to analyze Bultmann's arguments.

        For instance, with regard to historical matters relating to philosophy and theology, Bultmann proposed that the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' be eliminated from discussion,27 and this fit his double notion of reality, but it also destroyed the notion of theology as a science. Now, the answer to this proposal depends upon the recognition that the human mind is itself a medium between the knowing subject and the object of his knowledge, so that science in the mind is the proximate object of theology, while the concrete objects of faith are its remote object. New-wave exegetes, especially of a form-critical bent, are not methodologically aware of their minds as proximate objects, and thus they can easily be confused by a writer like Bultmann concerning the subject-object relationship and its particular use in Scriptural exegesis.

        Hence, the "critique of criticism" must begin from an analysis of the mental framework that form-critics use and of the kind of arguments that they construct. Cardinal Ratzinger notes that "from a distance the observer becomes aware with surprise that these interpretations (of critical exegetes), which were taken to be so rigorously scientific and purely 'historical,' reflect in reality the spirit of their authors rather than the spirit of ages gone by."28 I understand this to mean that the critical exegetes in point had not adequately examined their own minds as the medium of their thought and were, therefore, not equipped to examine the mentalities of other thinkers. The medium of thought for the historical scientist is the general medium of his own intellectual present plus the special medium of the past as an intellectual concept with the methodology that this implies.29 Until critical exegetes become aware of this historical medium, they will never be historical scientists or scientific exegetes.

        Two basic ways of developing a scientific method of exegesis are available. One way is the "critique of critical exegesis," whereby, with the use of at least a minimal scientific framework, the misformulated general historical principles and logical fallacies of critical exegetes are put straight and true formulations come to light. There is abundant literature at hand for this work, beginning, logically, with the writings of Bultmann and Dibelius. The other way is to analyze directly the medium of both historical and theological science and to test this analysis on the text of the Scriptures. Out of this work will come the discipline that is so badly needed to answer the Scriptural problems of today. I call it "the science of historical theology."

        AN ANALYTICAL EXEGETICAL FRAMEWORK.   The exegetical framework to be developed must be an analytical refinement of the framework that is implicit in the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church and was partly formulated by medieval exegetes. This approach is Patristic in its origin and in its general outlook, and yet, because it needs to be explicitated in a more systematic manner, using also recent scientific and historical insights, it is properly called the "neo-patristic method."

        From the approach begun by the Fathers of the Church, early medieval exegetes developed a method known as the "four senses of Sacred Scripture." The use of this method opened the door to many insights into the meaning of the inspired word, but the elaboration of the mental framework underlying the method was not carried very far before the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. There is, however, an abundant literature of medieval writings on the "four senses," which are the literal and historical, the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical (or final) senses of Sacred Scripture.30

        St. Thomas reflected on this method and gave a valuable explanation of the four senses in addition to expounding them in his commentaries on the Scriptures.31 His teaching can serve as the starting point for a more extended and differentiated exposition of this method, beginning with the first big distinction between the "literal" sense and the "spiritual," or "mystical," sense. For St. Thomas, this distinction arises from the fact that the rightly understood meaning of the words themselves of Sacred Scripture pertains to the literal, or historical, sense, while the fact that the things expressed by the words signify other things produces the spiritual sense. Thus, the spiritual sense is understood to be a typical, or figurative, sense which is based upon the literal sense and presupposes it.32 This basic double sense is possible because God, who is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture, has brought it about that things and events having their own historical meaning are used also to signify other things. But the central thing signified by these prefigurements is Jesus Christ Himself, who as the God-Man is the central focus of the spiritual sense and the subject of an extended symbolism which is known as the Allegory of Christ.

        The distinction between the literal and the spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture is analytical, even though spiritual realities are often the primary meaning of a text, because a certain interaction of faith and reason is implied in this division. The original meaning of words can be examined by unaided reason, as can the unfolding of visible happenings, but the spiritual meaning of words and events can be seen only by the light of faith. In Part I, Question I of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas points out that revealed teaching is necessary for man (article 1), that this teaching is a science based upon revealed truths that are visible under the light of faith (article 2), and that God is the subject of this science (article 7). Approaching, then, the distinction between the literal and the spiritual senses from an analytical point of view, I would say that the literal sense tends to be exclusively seen by the unaided human reason, while the spiritual sense is penetrated by theological reason aided by the light of faith. Where the text is speaking literally about spiritual realities, and above all about supernatural realities, the unaided reason can see the statement in a flattened and unmeaningful way, but it cannot "understand" the statement. Where the text contains spiritual meanings beneath the literal sense, the unaided reason can see these meanings at best in a flattened and unmeaningful way, while reason enlightened by faith can both see the spiritual meanings in a meaningful way and see the literal meaning in a more complete way - provided that it has the appropriate theological framework at its command.

        Looking, then, at sacred teaching as presented by the text of Sacred Scripture, and reasoning along the lines of St. Thomas, we can justifiably say that the inspired writings are necessary, not only because what is contained in them spiritually could not be figured out by man on his own, but also because the poor, fallen reason of man tends away from the spiritual truth and towards his own self-gratification. Men without grace do not want to know the spiritual truth and they endeavor to rub it out where it is written. But men possessed of faith and sanctifying grace will discover the truth and understand it.

        Again, the spiritual truth derived from the Scriptures is a science, because the remote object of this knowledge is God, who is real and is the consummation of all that is real. The reality of God is the summit of the one continuum of reality. The light of infused faith is an intellectual light having for its object the reality of God and elevating within it the concept of reality that is given by natural reason to the level of a higher science. Sacred theology is the knowledge of revealed reality as such, and it is developed principally by taking the supernatural dimension of reality that is revealed in the text of the Bible and comprehending its meaning in terms of a valid process of reasoning and intuition. The reality that sacred theology knows is in the one continuum of reality that natural reason knows on its own level, and these two levels of reality are synthesized in the mind of the theological thinker.33

        The light of Christian faith enables its possessor to perceive the reality of God in a higher and more concrete way than is open to unaided human reason. The more proximate object of Christian faith is the teaching of the Church, but more remotely it is the words of Scripture upon which most of this teaching is based. The ultimate object of faith is God Himself and those things which relate to God. God as an object of the human intelligence is in this life always obscure and never clearly seen, but the understanding of the spiritual sense of the words of Sacred Scripture actuates a much clearer and more concrete perception of God than is possible without their help. The New Testament and the Fathers of the Church explain to us that God is more clearly and more concretely revealed in the figure of Jesus Christ, who is God as well as He is man. The Sacred Scriptures were written to tell us about God in Jesus Christ, and this is true to such a degree that the central event and the key to the spiritual understanding of the entire Bible is the Incarnation of God in the human nature of Jesus Christ. The event of Christ unifies the Old Testament and the New, the letter and the spirit, the historical and the mystical, the visible and the invisible, the natural and the supernatural. The pattern in which this unification has been set down in the Scriptures is known as the Allegory of Christ and His Church.

        FOUR DISTINCT SENSES.   St. Thomas answers affirmatively to the question "whether there ought to be distinguished four senses of Sacred Scripture,"34 basing his response upon the authority of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Venerable Bede. St. Augustine observed: "In all the holy books it is behooving to discern the eternal things to be seen there, the deeds that are there narrated, the future things that are predicted, the things that are commanded to be done."35 St. Thomas sees these four things to refer respectively to the anagogical, the historical, the allegorical, and the tropological senses of Sacred Scripture.

        St. Thomas also quotes Venerable Bede as saying: "There are four senses of Sacred Scripture: history, which narrates things done; allegory, in which one thing is understood from another; tropology (that is, moral discourse), in which the ordering of habits is treated; and anagogy, by which we are led upward to treat of highest and heavenly things."36 St. Thomas identifies the "historical sense" of Bede with the literal sense presented by the words themselves, and he makes an analytical division of the spiritual sense into allegory, tropology, and anagogy. "The spiritual sense," he says, "is taken to be or consists in this that certain things are expressed through the figure of other things, since visible things are accustomed to be figures of invisible things, as Denis says," and that is why it is called the "spiritual" sense. "But," he continues, "the truth which Sacred Scripture presents through the figures of things is aimed at two things, namely, at rightly believing and at rightly doing. If at rightly doing, we have the moral sense, which is also called the tropological sense; but if at rightly believing, it behooves to distinguish according to the order of believable things, since as Denis says in the fourth chapter of the Heavenly Hierarchies, the state of the Church is midway between the state of the Synagogue and the state of the triumphant Church. Therefore, the 0ld Testament was a figure of the New, while the Old and New Testaments together are a figure of heavenly things. Therefore, the spiritual sense ordered to rightly believing can be based upon that manner of figuration in which the Old Testament figures the New, and this is the allegorical, or typical, sense according to this that the things which happened in the Old Testament are expounded of Christ and the Church; or it can be based upon that manner of figuration in which the New and the Old Testaments together signify the Church Triumphant, and this is the anagogical sense."37

        To clarify these distinctions, St. Thomas notes in the first place that things which actually happened can refer to Christ and his members as shadows of the truth, and this is what produces the allegorical sense, while other comparisons, being imaginary rather than real, whether in Sacred Scripture or in other literature, do not stand outside of the literal sense. Hence, the allegorical sense of Sacred Scripture is not imaginary and is not a genre of human inventiveness.38

        It might seem in the second place that the tropological sense should not be distinguished from the allegorical, since there is one Church of the Head and the members, and the allegorical sense seems to pertain to the Head of the Church, i.e., to Christ, while the tropological sense seems to pertain to its members, i.e., to the faithful. To this difficulty St. Thomas replies that "the allegorical sense pertains to Christ not only under the aspect of the Head but also under the aspect of his members, just as by the twelve stones picked from the Jordan (Joshua 4:3) are signified the Twelve Apostles. But the moral sense pertains to the members of Christ with regard to their own acts and not insofar as they are considered as members."39

        It might seem in the third place that the moral sense should not be distinguished from the literal, because in several places Sacred Scripture gives moral instructions according to the literal sense. To this St. Thomas replies that "the moral sense is not every sense by which morals are taught, but (that sense) through which the teaching of morals is taken from a likeness to things done, and thus the moral sense is the spiritual side, because the moral is never the same sense as the literal."40

        It might seem in the fourth place that, since Christ is the Head of the triumphant as well as of the militant Church, the anagogical sense should not be different from the allegorical. To this St. Thomas responds that "just as the allegorical sense pertains to Christ according as He is the Head of the Church Militant, justifying it and infusing grace, so also the anagogical sense pertains to Him according as He is the Head of the Church Triumphant, glorifying it."41

        Finally, it might seem that, if these four senses were necessary for Sacred Scripture, each and every part of Sacred Scripture would have to have these four senses, but, as Augustine says in his commentary on Genesis, "in some parts the literal sense alone is to be sought." To this St. Thomas replies that various parts of Scripture have four, three, two, or only one of these senses. Thus, the literal events of the Old Testament can be expounded in the four senses. The things spoken literally of Christ as the Head of the New Testament Church can also be expounded according to the four senses, because the historical Body of Christ can be expounded allegorically of the Mystical Body of Christ, and tropologically of the acts of the faithful to be modelled after the example of Christ, and anagogically inasmuch as Christ is the way to glory that has been shown to us. The things spoken literally of the Church of the New Testament can be expounded in three senses, because they can also be expounded tropologically and anagogically, but not allegorically, except that things mentioned literally regarding the primitive Church may have allegorical meaning regarding the later Church of the New Testament. The things of moral import in the literal sense can be expounded only literally and allegorically. And, finally, the things spoken literally regarding the state of glory cannot be expounded in any other sense.42

        A WIDE APPLICATION.   These principles of interpretation given by St. Thomas in regard to the four senses of Sacred Scripture have a much wider application than has been supposed in modern times, even by traditional Catholic exegetes. Let it become our purpose to discover some new dimensions of their application, and let us begin by looking briefly at St. Thomas's own application of these principles in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 4, verses 21 to 31, where St. Paul says that "Abraham had two sons" (v. 22) and that "these things are said by allegory" (v. 24).43

        Commenting on Galatians 4:24, St. Thomas avers that "allegory is a manner of speaking by which one thing is said and another thing is meant." Thus, he says, "the word 'allegory' comes from alos (alien) and goge (a leading)" because it leads, as it were, "to a different understanding." St. Thomas makes clear that allegory in the sense used here is not imaginary and is not within the power of merely human authors to create, because by merely human means only words can be used to signify, but God can use real events to signify other things. Thus God in the Sacred Scriptures has made things of the Old Law to signify the New Law and things of the New Law to signify future glory. And he gives a general example.

        In Genesis 1:3 it is written: "God said, 'Let there be light,' and light was made." Taken literally, "Let there be light" refers to physical light; allegorically, it refers to the birth of Christ in the Church; tropologically, it refers to the illumination of our intellects and the inflammation of our wills through Christ; anagogically, it refers to our being brought into the light of glory through Christ.44

        In this example we see a wide application of the word "light" in the Scriptures, not merely to physical light, but by way of allegory to the light that is Christ, the light of Christian faith and charity, and the light of eternal glory. Such a perspective transcends the narrow horizon of the form-critic and opens up whole new vistas of insight into the Scriptures. If in the beginning God actually said, "Let Christ be born in the Church," and "Let the light of Christ arise in the minds and hearts of the children of God," and "Let the light of eternal glory shine forth in the minds of the blessed in heaven" - then there is more written in the Bible than form-critics perceive or even dream of.

        THE PROPER DISPOSITION.   A lesson concerning the proper disposition for the interpretation of the inspired Word of God can be taken from the commentary of St. Thomas on John 1:26-27.45 John the Baptist replied: "... but in your midst there has stood one whom you do not recognize, ... the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loosen." How is Christ standing in the midst of form-critical exegetes like Bultmann and his followers? Historically, according to Gregory the Great, Chrysostom, and Augustine, Christ is presented in His human nature in the Gospels, "taking the form of a servant and being made like unto men" (Phil 2:7), so that He could say, "I am in your midst as one who serves" (Lk 22:27). But form-critics like Bultmann cannot either grasp the fact that God was made man or recognize how great Jesus is according to the divine nature that is concealed in Him.

        According to Origen, Christ the God-Man stands in the midst of all creation, because, being the Person of the Word, He has filled heaven and earth from the beginning (Jer 23:24). But form-critics like Bultmann do not recognize Him, because "He was in the world, but the world knew him not" (Jn 1:10).

        Tropologically, according to St. Thomas, Christ (as the Word of God) "shines in everyone's understanding, because whatever light and whatever wisdom (natural or supernatural) exists in men has come to them from participating in the Word," and, thus, Christ "enlightens every man coming into this world" (Jn 1:9). But form-critics like Bultmann do not recognize Christ, because the light of wisdom is not in them. The Pharisees were Scripture scholars too, but they did not recognize Christ as the Messiah, because, according to the Evangelists, their hearts were hardened by unbelief and their eyes were blinded so that they did not recognize to be present the One whom they were expecting to come. Similarly, form-critics like Bultmann in their blindness do not recognize the God-Man who has come and who is revealed in the inspired Word of Scripture.

        Allegorically, according to Gregory the Great (cited here by St. Thomas), since sandals are made from the skin of dead animals, the sandal of Christ signifies the mortal human nature which He has assumed to his divine Person, and the strap is the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures, which, as the mystery of the Incarnation, no man can "loosen," that is, explain adequately, although Christian preachers can open up this mystery to some extent.

        But form-critics like Bultmann use a false and rationalistic distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith," whereby they empty the reality of the Incarnation of its objective meaning and subjectively reduce the divinity of Christ to a function of their own pride as "modern men."46 Thus they do not succeed in perceiving the reality behind the mystery, as John the Baptist was able to do by counteracting pride with humility.

        THE ALLEGORY OF THE TWO TESTAMENTS.   In commenting on the Allegory of the Two Testaments in Galatians 4:21-31, St. Thomas points out that, according to St. Paul, Sarah, the free woman, signifies allegorically the Church of the New Testament, even though she was historically the physical mother of the Chosen People of the Old Testament, while Hagar, the bondwoman, signifies the Synagogue of the Old Testament, even though historically she was the Egyptian mother of the Ishmaelites. The physical descendants of Sarah as such are the original "children of the promise," but that promise regarded temporal rewards. The descendants of Sarah according to the spirit are the inheritors of a new testament in the Blood of Christ and the children of a new promise which regards eternal life.

        St. Thomas, following the reasoning of St. Paul, explains in the first place that Hagar, the bondwoman, signifies the Old Testament, which promised temporal, earthly rewards, but gave birth unto slavery as regards feeling, understanding, and result: as regards feeling, because those of the Old Testament were motivated to obey God out of fear rather than out of love (Rom 8:15); as regards understanding, because they knew only the figures of revealed things and not what the figures represent (2 Cor 3:14); and as regards result, because the Old Testament bestowed at best the small gifts that were due to servants bound to the goods of this world. Similarly, Sarah, the free woman, signifies the New Testament, the law to be written by God in the hearts of the people of the new Israel (Jer 31:31-33), which gives birth unto freedom: as regards feeling, because those of the New Covenant are motivated by love; as regards understanding, because its children know the truth about God revealed in Jesus Christ (Jn 8:32); and as regards result, because those of the New Testament receive the divine inheritance of eternal happiness owing to the adopted children of God (Rom 8:15-17).

        St. Thomas explains in the second place that Hagar and Sarah are figures also of the two Jerusalems. Hagar, who is a figure of the earthly Jerusalem, and is thus the figurative mother of the earthly community of the Jews,47   "is in bondage with her children" (Gal 4:24-25), because Mount Sinai (where the Law of Moses was given) "is in line with the Jerusalem that now exists" (Gal 4:24-25). Mount Sinai is in line with the earthly Jerusalem geographically in the sense that it was on the route of the Hebrew people as they migrated from Egypt to the earthly Promised Land of Canaan (St. Thomas), or, more broadly, because it is on the same existential plane, namely the plane of this visible world, and it gave birth unto bondage, because the Law of Moses did not provide the means to escape from the bondage of Original Sin (Jn 8:34).

        But Sarah is a figure of "that Jerusalem which is above," which is free (Gal 4:26), because it has been "delivered from the servitude of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). The name "Jerusalem," according to conventional etymology, means "vision of peace," and it is to the beatific vision of eternal peace that St. Paul is referring when he speaks of "that Jerusalem which is above" (cf. Heb 11:16), that is, which is above the plane of the natural world. St. Thomas explains that this heavenly city has an initial phase in the present life and a final phase in the next. The children of God are engendered in this life by the Church Militant (Jn 3:5) and are resurrected after death into the Church Triumphant (1 Pet 1:3). The members of the City of God in this life have the "vision of peace" by means of the supernatural virtue of faith, which gives them a partial view of the divine realities that they will see clearly in the next life. This partial view is unfolded in the Allegory of Christ and His Church that has been impressed by God upon the Sacred Scriptures. Faith supported by hope and charity can enable the faithful to raise their minds to see not only this lower allegory but also the higher allegorical pattern of the "anagogy" of the heavenly Jerusalem, which has also been impressed by the divine Author upon the pages of Holy Writ (Col 3:1-2).

        The heavenly Jerusalem is a reality on a higher plane than the earthly Jerusalem. The allegorical casting out of Hagar by Sarah represents a reality that is on a higher level than the historical episode itself. Allegorically, the episode means that the children of this world who persecute Christ and his followers in this life will be cast out of the inheritance of eternal happiness in the next and are even in large part excluded from membership in the Kingdom of God of the present time. But Hagar and Ishmael as historical persons, apart from the drama of the allegory in which they are actors, are not understood to have incurred the disfavor of God. The divine command, "Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac" (Gen 21:10) refers allegorically to Christ, of whom Isaac is a prototype, but the episode is explained differently on the historical level.

        St. Paul tells us: "But as then he that was born according to the flesh persecuted him that was according to the spirit; so also, it is now" (Gal 4:29). St. Thomas suggests that, since Ishmael was older than Isaac, he may sometimes have made sport of the younger boy when they were playing together. But this would have been a minor offense at worst. The historical reality goes deeper. The Scriptures tell us that Sarah was a good woman (1 Pet 3:6) who by faith, "being barren, received strength to conceive seed, even past the time of age, because she believed that he was faithful who had promised" (Heb 11:11). And Hagar, who had conceived earlier according to the ordinary law of nature, when she had realized that she was with child, "despised her mistress" (Gen 16:4). But, because of this, it was Sarah who persecuted Hagar, so that she ran away (Gen 16:6). And it was Sarah who, for seemingly selfish reasons, became, if not the cause, at least the occasion of the "carnal theory of salvation," that is, that membership in the People of God lies in mere blood descendancy from her. It is to the carnal descendants of Sarah that St. Paul is referring when he says that those born "according to the flesh," even now persecute those (Christians) who have been born "according to the spirit."

        Therefore, it must be admitted that, in the historical sense of St. Paul's teaching, Hagar and Ishmael were good persons. To have been a slave or the son of a slave is a disgrace in the eyes of men of this world, but not in the eyes of God (Phil 2:7). Hagar, in obedience to the command of God, returned to the service of Sarah and humbled herself under Sarah's hand (Gen 16:9). Ishmael was also a son of divine promise (Gen 21:13); God heard his prayers (Gen 2l:l7), and God was with him (Gen 21:20). And so, historically speaking, who was good and who may have been discardable by God depends basically, not on the role he or she played in the allegory, but on the way each one responded to the grace of God in real life and on how each one rose above merely carnal relationships to live according to the spirit. This seems to be the interpretation given by Our Lord Himself in Luke 11:28.

        Allegorically, the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament prefigures Christ, the Lamb of God, by whose Blood the New Testament has been ratified. The people of the New Testament are sanctified by the Blood of Christ, and they too, in following Christ, must sacrifice themselves and be sacrificed.

        The idea of the people of God as a people of sacrifice is a tropological dimension of the allegory of the two testaments. St. Paul tells us that the Old Testament is "from Mount Sinai, engendering unto bondage" (Gal 4:24b). St. Thomas comments that Mount Sinai signifies pride: "Give glory to the Lord your God before it be dark, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains" (Jer 13:16). This would indicate that a tropology of sin was involved in that the journey from the figurative Mount Sinai to the earthly Jerusalem, that is, toward the vision of peace which this world promises but cannot give, was made by stumbling over the mountains of pride and self-aggrandizement, and this led only to enslavement. But, we might add, the tropological journey from Mount Calvary to the heavenly Jerusalem is liberating, because it frees us from self-love and opens our minds and hearts to the knowledge and love of God. Christians "cast out the bondwoman" (Gal 40:30) by casting out the sin of pride from their hearts, and thus they achieve the freedom of the children of God.


1. Joseph Ratzinger, "L'interpretazione della Bibbia in conflitto," in Ignace de la Potterie, ed., L'esegesi cristiana oggi (Casale Monferrato, Italy: PIEMME, 1991), pp. 93-125; "Schriftauslegung im Widerstreit," in J. Ratzinger, ed., Quaest. Disp., 117 (Freiburg: Herder, 1989), pp. 15-44.

2. J. Ratzinger, "L'interpretazione della Bibbia in conflitto," pp. 100 and 114. The quoted words here and hereafter are my translation from the Italian version.

3. Ibid., p. 123.

4. Ibid., p. 104.

5. Ibid., p. 106.

6. Ibid., pp. ll0-111.

7. Ibid., pp. 111-113.

8. Ibid., p. 117.

9. Ibid., p. ll3.

10. Ibid., p. 121.

11. Ibid., pp. 123-124.

12. Ibid., pp. 121-122.

13. Ibid., p. 124.

14. Cf. Ibid., p. 125.

15. Ibid., pp. 102-103.

16. R. Bultmann, "Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung," in H. W. Bartsch et al., Kerygma und Mythos (Hamburg: Evangelischer Verlag), vol. VI-1: a) "... die ein objektivierenden Sehen vorgestellte Wirklichkeit der Welt, innerhalb deren sich der Mensch vorfindet..." (p. 20); b) "... als die Wirklichkeit des geschlichtlich existierenden Menschen" (p. 21).

17. I have treated Bultmann's notion of reality at length in J. F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology (reprinted by TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford, Illinois, 1991), pp. 13-14; 106-ll3.

18. The "form-criticism" (Formgeschichte: literally, "form-history") of the Gospels emerged in Germany among liberal Protestant scholars between 1919 and 1922 through the publications of Martin Dibelius, Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Rudolf Bultmann, M. Albertz, and G. Bertram.

19. R. Bultmann, History and Eschatology (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 143-144.

20. Cf. R. Bultmann, in H. W. Bartsch ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, vol. I (London: SPCK, 1953), pp. 191-193 and 200.

21. R. Bultmann, ibid., p. 191. I have analyzed Bultmann's theory of history in The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 7-9 and 113-119.

22. See McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 34-56.

23. These five definitions are presented on page 100 of The Science of Historical Theology, and the reasoning leading to their formulation is given in the preceding eighty-five pages.

24. The pseudoscientific and fictional character of Bultmann's theological production is analyzed in The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 155-164.

25. Bultmann's notion of theological understanding as being basically and exclusively self-understanding is analyzed in The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 141-155.

26. R. Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1st ed., 1921; 8th rev. ed.: Gottingen, 1970); Eng. trans. by John Marsh, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).

27. R. Bultmann, Essays Philosophical and Theological (trans. by J. C. Greig: London, 1955), p. 287.

28. J. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 103.

29. See J. F. McCarthy, "The Relationship of Past and Present in Historical Science," in The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 64-72.

30. See, e.g., Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l'Ecriture (Paris: Aubier, 1959). This work is remarkable for the copiousness of the sources cited.

31. See especially Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, part I, quest. 1, art. 10: Quodlibet Seven, quest. 6; and Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians (infra, note 43). For a brief summary of St. Thomas's teaching on the four senses of Sacred Scripture, see Thomas Kuffel, "St. Thomas's Method of Biblical Exegesis," in Living Tradition, No. 38 (November 1991).

32. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 1, art. 10 corp.

33. The notion of Christian faith as an affirmation of the reality of revealed objects and as a perception of this reality is expounded in The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 87-100.

34. Cf. Aquinas, Quaestiones Quodlibetales, quest. 6, art. 2.

35. A. Augustinus, Commentary on Genesis, bk. I.

36. Bede, Commentary on Genesis.

37. Cf. Aquinas, Quaestiones Quodlibetales, ques. 6, art. 2.

38. Ibid., to the first objection.

39. Ibid., to the second objection.

40. Ibid., to the third objection.

41. Ibid., to the fourth objection.

42. Ibid., to the fifth objection. Cf. Kuffel, op. cit., p. 7.

43. T. Aquinas, Super Epistolas S. Pauli Lectura (Turin-Rome: Marietti, 1953), pp. 619-624; Eng. trans. by F. R. Larcher, Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (Magi Books: 33 Buckingham Dr., Albany, N.Y., 1966), pp. 134-149.

44. Cf. Aquinas, commentary on Galatians 4:24a (supra, note 43).

45. Cf. Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura (Turin-Rome; Marietti, 1952), p. 49; Eng. trans. by J. A. Weisheipl and F. R. Larcher, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John (Magi Books: 33 Buckingham Dr., Albany, N.Y., 1980), pp. 114-115.

46. For an analysis of the error involved in the notion of "modern man" as used in form-critical reasoning, see The Science of Historical Theology, articles 8.4 and 8.5 (pp. 119-128).

47. Cf. Aquinas, commentary on Galatians 4:23 (supra, note 43).

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