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Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Bible Corner.

I have enormous skepticism toward modern biblical criticism. Resting as it too often does on the shifting sands of "scholarly consensus," I think the only thing it effectively does is create doubt in the worth of the biblical text, and the sneaking (or not-so-sneaking) suspicion that the "sacred writers" are more properly to be regarded as pious frauds. Actually, my view of the matter, and many of the personalities involved, is much stronger than that, but I'm going to dial it down for the moment. For a fiercely critical overview of current Catholic biblical scholarship, I point you to this survey by Fr. Brian Harrison (disclaimer: I do not endorse everything at this website, or indeed at any website I happen to link to). I'm not quite persuaded by it, especially with respect to its assessment of the current state of Catholic biblical studies (there are more signs of hope), but it is thought-provoking. Lest you think Fr. Harrison is a troglodyte, let me assure you that there is no fiercer defender of the Second Vatican Council from a traditional perspective than he is. Moreover, his work is recommended by Dr. Scott Hahn's St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. If that means anything to you.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission fairly identified me (and others like me) in its thoughtful 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible In the Church:

But the fact is that at the very time when the most prevalent scientific method—the "historical-critical method"—is freely practiced in exegesis, including Catholic exegesis, it is itself brought into question. To some extent, this has come about in the scholarly world itself through the rise of alternative methods and approaches. But it has also arisen through the criticisms of many members of the faithful, who judge the method deficient from the point of view of faith.

* * *

The diversity of interpretations only serves to show, they say, that nothing is gained by submitting biblical texts to the demands of scientific method; on the contrary, they allege, much is lost thereby. They insist that the result of scientific exegesis is only to provoke perplexity and doubt upon numerous points which hitherto had been accepted without difficulty. They add that it impels some exegetes to adopt positions contrary to the faith of the church on matters of great importance such as the virginal conception of Jesus and his miracles, and even his resurrection and divinity.

Even when it does not end up in such negative positions, scientific exegesis, they claim, is notable for its sterility in what concerns progress in the Christian life. Instead of making for easier and more secure access to the living sources of God's word, it makes of the Bible a closed book. Interpretation may always have been something of a problem, but now it requires such technical refinements as to render it a domain reserved for a few specialists alone. To the latter some apply the phrase of the Gospel:

You have taken away the key of knowledge; you have not entered in yourselves and you have hindered those who sought to enter" (Lk. 11:52; cf. Mt. 23:13).


To use a technical Catholic term: Bingo. Then there's this damning indictment from maverick Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson: "[T]ruth to tell, the contributions of critical biblical scholarship either to real history or to authentic theology have not up to now been particularly impressive and have certainly not had the character of transmitting faith to succeeding generations." (See Section VIII of the Dulles article)

So, of course, the Church naturally serves up the historical-critical method whole and undiluted in its official Bible for American Catholics, the NAB. It's the works: the footnotes, introductions and commentaries serve up the four-source theory of the Pentateuch, denial of supernatural prophecy, late dates for all of the Gospels (see denial of supernatural prophecy), denial of Pauline authorship of at least five epistles--its all there. Which explains why when I go to my bible bookshelf, the NAB remains safely undisturbed. The most consistent effects of the NAB are doubt and confusion.

In the same vein are the practitioners of the method in the Catholic Church. With a few exceptions, they seem more intent on scholarly plaudits than in contributing to the understanding of the laity. Compared to their evangelical counterparts, Catholic biblical scholars are, frankly, ivory tower snobs of the first order.

Compare and contrast:

N.T. Wright, the formidable Anglican evangelical and scholar, certainly publishes weighty and respected academic tomes on the "historical Jesus" issue. But he also publishes popular commentaries like this, this and this. In short, Dr. Wright stays in contact with the average believer, in tune with and in a very real sense accountable to them. Indeed, such seems to be the case throughout the evangelical world, where the biblical scholars endeavor to produce works accessible to and useable by average believers. The works of Wright (and others) bespeak a lively, robust faith intent on being an active member of the faith community.

Not so the case for Catholics.

Against Wright, I offer Fr. John Meier, another respected historical Jesus scholar of the Catholic persuasion with an equally weighty (but more expensive) work. "Popular" works by Meier? Zilch. Consequently, Meier doesn't risk exposure to Joe Grunt in the pews. Perhaps this is just as well, given that in the tome linked above, Fr. Meier patiently explains why the historical-critical method reveals that those who hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, are, most probably, fideistic nimrods. Perhaps this explains why Fr. Meier does not engage with the laity: there's an understandable concern that the sensus fidei would be outraged.

Then there's Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. Fr. Fitzmyer, a respected contributor of multiple weighty offerings to the Anchor Bible series, frets about the existence of "Catholic fundamentalists." Like Karl Keating. Please understand that, in the hermetically-sealed world of modern Catholic biblical scholarship, there is no worse epithet than "fundamentalist." Except, perhaps, "pre-critical." Indeed, the PBC document reserves its harshest criticism for "fundamentalism," comparatively sparing Marxists and feminists. Go figure. I could be wrong, but when I visit my local Catholic bookstores, the Bible shelves are not exactly awash with fundamentalism. Indeed, there is relative dearth of Catholic biblical material of any sort. Where it exists, it is of the type congenial to fans of modern criticism, such as the NAB or the Collegeville commentary. Rather surprisingly, the PBC document does not explore the connection between historical-critical exegesis and the growth of fundamentalism.

As best I am able to determine, a Catholic fundamentalist is someone who shows (1) "uncritical" reverence for Scripture, or (2) a modicum of skepticism for the historical-critical method, or (3) a modicum of respect for pre-1962 Catholic biblical scholarship. Or any combination thereof. Candidly, the discussion of "Catholic fundamentalism" seems to be more a parochial concern about turf directed against those who infringe on the prerogatives of the scholarly elite than it is about a serious threat to the Church.

For his part, too, Fr. Fitzmyer rarely condescends to deal with the laity.

Unlike, say, Karl Keating. Karl's audience is bigger, but Fr. Fitzmyer does not understand why. The fact Keating, unlike Fr. Fitzmyer and his colleagues, is offering something the faithful hunger for does not enter the picture. It's easier to simply shrug and call him a "fundamentalist."

In any event, compared to Wright and the evangelicals, the place of faith in the work of Catholic scholars such as Frs. Meier and Fitzmyer is much less clear. I'm not doubting their personal faith--just the impact. Instead, an arid objectivity dominates, leading to a disconnect between faith and scholarship that leads to the concerns outlined by the PBC document.

The sterility of this approach is seen in the response of critical scholarship to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. An epochal moment in the recent history of the Church, the Catechism filled a crying need:

The published text, in many languages, has been a remarkable commercial success. A document initially directed to bishops (paragraph 12), and only through them to religious educators and others, the Catechism has proved to be exceedingly popular with lay readers. More than a million copies were sold in France; more than two million have been sold within the first few months in the United States. Some people are speaking of the "phenomenon" of the Catechism: it evidently responds to a deep hunger in the people of God for the bread of solid doctrine.

Critical scholars chose instead to carp. The charge? The Catechism's use of the Bible is "not critical enough." The disconnect between the laity and Catholic scholars needs no better demonstration: the people cry for true faith, and degreed clerics natter about "Christologies from below."

Ultimately, the failure of critical scholarship is seen in its abandonment of the faith and the faithful in pursuit of an academic enterprise:

With the emergence of new historical disciplines in the eighteenth century and the application of these disciplines to the Scriptures, scholars began, unwittingly at first, to construct a new context to take the place of the Church. The aim was to break free of the patterns that had shaped Christian interpretation for centuries. The Bible came to be seen more and more as a book of the ancient world; hence its interpretation was primarily a historical enterprise.

The more the Bible was studied historically and philologically, the more it came to appear foreign to Christian faith and life. It was taken as axiomatic that the scholarly study of the Bible had to exclude references to Christian teaching. The notion that the Nicene Creed might play a role in understanding the biblical conception of God appeared ludicrous. As a consequence biblical scholarship acquired a life of its own as a historical enterprise independent of the Church (and of the Synagogue). Today its home is the university.

The other Bible, the Bible of the Church, however, lives, and, one might add, people live (and die) by it. Scholars will continue to write books about the original setting of Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53, but the Christian interpretation of these texts is fixed in the minds of the faithful and it is not going to go away. The Church's interpretation is embedded in the liturgy, in hymns, in the catechetical tradition, and-let us not forget-in the Bible itself. The Christian interpretation of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 begins in the New Testament. If one has a quarrel with the Church's interpretation of the Bible the debate is not with Origen or St. Augustine or St. Bernard, it is with St. Paul and St. Matthew.


The PBC document was issued ten years ago. There's no sign the Catholic biblical establishment has gotten the message.

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