LESSON 23: April 2007


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

161. A common switch-over to neo-patristic exegesis is urgently needed. The word "exegesis" means "interpretation," and refers especially to the scholarly and technical interpretation of Sacred Scripture. An "exegete" is an interpreter of Sacred Scripture. The method of interpretation known as "historical criticism" is now unfortunately being used in most of the teaching faculties within the Catholic Church, especially in the Western Church. This method has the approval of the Hierarchy of the Church, but it has many pitfalls that are confusing believers and doing harm within the Church. Why is this so? The historical-critical method has its origin in the so-called Enlightenment of the seventeenth century and the Rationalism of the eighteenth century, followed by the exegetical work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of liberal Protestant scholars. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, historical criticism has been characterized especially by a technique known in English as "form-criticism." Very influential among the liberal Protestant originators of historical criticism are Hermann Gunkel, the founder of the form-criticism of the Old Testament, and Rudolf Bultmann, the most celebrated founder of the form-criticism of the New Testament. The problem for Catholics is that Catholic historical critics have not fully succeeded in rejecting the false elements in the historical-critical approach or in assimilating whatever true elements it may have into Catholic exegetical tradition.

162. Confusion of the PBC over presuppositions. But Catholic historical critics are in general unaware of these shortcomings in their approach. Thus, the historical critics of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission (not an organ of the Magisterium of the Church), in a 1993 document titled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, claim that the historical-critical method, of which form-criticism is an initial step, "when used objectively, implies no a priori,"( that is, no presuppositions) to the effect that "if its use is accompanied by a priori principles, that is not something pertaining to the method itself, but to certain hermeneutical choices which govern the interpretation and can be tendentious’ (IBC, IA:4). Hermeneutics is "the art or science of interpretation, especially applied to the Scriptures" (Webster’s Dictionary). The Commission was reacting against the well-known position of Rudolf Bultmann, who was an adherent to the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and who also maintained that it is not possible to have an exegesis of a biblical text without the use of presuppositions to guide the understanding of the exegete (IBC, IIA:1). Yet the PBC goes on to admit that all exegesis of biblical events "necessarily involves the exegete’s own subjectivity," and "access to a proper understanding of biblical texts is only granted to the person who has an affinity with what the text is saying on the basis of life experience." Hence, it says, every exegete must decide "which hermeneutical theory best enables a proper grasp of the profound reality of which Scripture speaks and its meaningful expression for people today" (IBC, IIA:2). These quotations seem to indicate a contradiction in the PBC’s position regarding the use by exegetes of presuppositions and a priori principles.

163. Need of an organized mental framework. Every scientific method proceeds through the use of an organized mental framework containing the principles by which it is governed. These principles are presuppositions of the respective scientific method. Bultmann is right in maintaining that the understanding of any biblical text requires the use of the correct presuppositions, and the error of his form-criticism lies in his use of the false presuppositions of Rationalism. Catholic form-critics have unwittingly adopted his method without adequately identifying the Rationalist principles that underlie it. Due to this lack of analysis, Catholic form-critics have unwittingly accepted to a large extent a Rationalist mental frame of reference that is not integrated into the mental framework of Catholic faith and Catholic exegetical tradition. It is not a matter of "involving the exegete’s own subjectivity" but rather of formulating the correct principles of an adequate frame of reference. Neo-patristic exegesis has the task of clearly identifying the underlying principles of the form-critical method so as to retain any elements of truth it may contain while rejecting the conclusions based upon its underlying Rationalism.

164. The mental framework of the Four Senses. Perhaps for this purpose Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in his Preface to the 1993 document, pointed out that "there are also new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture." And Pope John Paul II, in his address of 23 April 1993 at the presentation of this document, emphasized "the need to interpret each biblical text as part of the Scriptural canon recognized by the Church, and of being more attentive to the contributions of patristic exegesis." The approach of the Fathers of the Church, as summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas, was expressed in terms of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture, namely, the literal, the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and the anagogical (final or eschatological) senses. Historical critics typically recognize only the literal sense of Sacred Scripture. Regarding the Four Senses, the PBC document avers: "The allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today (IBC, IIIB.2). In reaction to this multiplicity of senses in Catholic exegetical tradition, says the PBC document, historical-critical scholars "adopted, more or less overtly, the thesis of the one single meaning," to the effect that "all the effort of historical-critical exegesis goes into defining the precise sense of this or that biblical text seen within the circumstances in which it was produced." But the authors of the PBC document go on to admit that "this thesis has now run aground" (IBC, IIB). To the point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists these Four Senses of Scripture and teaches that "the profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church." And it goes on to say: "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment" (CCC, 115-119).

165. Need of a new synthesis of exegetical method. In his celebrated History of the Synoptic Tradition of 1921, Rudolf Bultmann, using the form-critical method in a Rationalist frame of reference, seemed to have destroyed the historicity of every supernatural happening reported in the Synoptic Gospels. In his later writings he used the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger and others to reduce the act of Christian faith to the subjective state of the believer. When the PBC document of 1993 says that the historical-critical method has no a priori principles of its own, it is referring to philosophical principles like the existentialism of Bultmann, but it does not seem to be fully aware of the Rationalist principles used by Bultmann and others in the reasoning of the form-critical method itself. Thus Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a widely circulated article published originally in 1989, called upon historical-critical exegetes to employ "a less arbitrary philosophy which offers greater possibilities for a true hearing of the text." He pointed out that it has become imperative at this juncture of time to build a new and better synthesis of exegetical method, to challenge the framework of systematic presuppositions underlying the exegesis of Rudolf Bultmann, and to get modern exegesis away from the influence of Immanuel Kant, which has reduced history to philosophy. These facts seem to have been missed by the historical critics of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission in their document of 1993.

166. Catholic form-critics lack an adequate mental framework. A basic presupposition of the historical-critical method is that the supernatural does not exist, and, therefore, that the miracles and true prophecies recorded in Sacred Scripture never really took place. Thus, form-criticism seeks to give a natural explanation for every supernatural happening, with the result that every plausible exclusion of the supernatural is reckoned an advance of the method. Bultmann concluded from his own presuppositions that every supernatural event recorded in the Gospels is fictitious. Now, Catholic form-critics are obliged by their faith to admit at least some supernatural happenings, such as the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the existence of Heaven and Hell, while Bultmann rejected all of these things as mythology. So, when the Rationalist presuppositions underlying the form-critical method lead to conclusions that deny these realities, Catholic form-critics don’t draw the conclusions, but neither do they effectively expose the errors in the form-critical reasoning that lead to these conclusions. In fact, the mountain of fallacies contained in Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition has lain undigested in the belly of Catholic form-critical exegesis for more than eighty years, and even his method of "demythologizing" the New Testament (1941) has been only poorly refuted by some liberal Catholic theologians. There are reasons for this failure.

167. Catholic form-critics lack adequate definitions of terms. An error characteristic of the form-critical 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. This leaves the reader in a state of perplexity concerning their reality. On the other hand, Gunkel and Bultmann, the founders of the method, clearly affirm that the literary forms presenting biblical events are fictional, that is, that most of the events described in the Bible are simply forms of religious fiction. But Catholic followers of this method, while they may not fully agree with Gunkel and Bultmann that the forms are entirely fictional, have abandoned the mental framework of right reason inspired by faith that belongs to Catholic exegetical tradition and are left with no mental framework of their own by which they could fit these biblical events into a context that offsets the Rationalism of Gunkel and Bultmann. In most instances, the best that Catholic form-critics can do is to be silent about the matter. But to be silent about this matter is to be unscientific in one’s approach. In addition to the framework of the Four Senses, neo-patristic exegetes use the mental framework of Scholastic philosophy and theology, together with the principles of a truly historical method, all of which provide for them a precise definition of terms

168. Catholic form-critics use improperly defined literary forms. 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," and proposed some "basic elements of a new synthesis." This would require, he said, a return to "the insights of the great believers of the past." What we need today, he explained, is "a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself."

169. Historical science does not equivocate about reality. There is reason to be dissatisfied with the self-characterized "historical method" of a form-criticism which leaves undefined such all-pervasive terms as historical, scientific, and real. On the contrary, the neo-patristic method highlights the concept of reality in the definition of science by taking the word science to mean "the knowledge of reality as such," and the expression historical science to mean "the knowledge of past reality as such." Historical science is science only to the extent that the historical scientist is aware of his own medium of thought. Therefore, when neo-patristic researchers examine the reasoning of a form-critical writer, they are careful to consider how the writer handles the concept of reality and how clearly he is aware of his own medium of thought. 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." The literal sense is basic to neo-patristic exegesis, and the other senses depend upon it. The neo-patristic method begins with the interpretation of the literal sense of the sacred text and never contradicts it. Neo-patristic analysis of form-critical writings pertains only to the literal sense, because this is the only sense that form-critics recognize, but neo-patristic exegetes go on to study the other senses as well. There is a strong tendency among form-critics to claim that they have discovered contradictions in the inspired text, but these alleged contradictions usually prove under fuller analysis not to be contradictions at all. This work has positive results. Neo-patristic exegetes find that the resolving of these merely apparent contradictions often leads to new insights into the sacred text.


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157.