Benedict XVI On Biblical Exegesis and Faith in the Historical Jesus

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m taking a course on Christology and Soteriology. Today I started into one of the assigned texts, Pope Benedict XVI’s recently-published book Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007). It’s very interesting, and I thought I’d occasionally blog about it as the topics he covers seem to require.

There’s a very interesting discussion on the interface of faith and reason in the Foreword to Benedict’s book. The pope begins by pointing out the well-known skeptical gap between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” which was created by Liberal theology (e.g., Bultmann, Harnack): “As historical-critical scholarship advanced, it led to finer and finer distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, beneath which the real object of faith–the figure [Gestalt] of Jesus–became increasingly obscured and blurred” (pg. xii). As the Liberals worked their deconstructing magic on the Gospels, “at the one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working–though finally failing–to overthrow ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief” (ibid.). This has left many Christians in “a dramatic situation,” for “Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air” (ibid.).

Now what is really interesting here is that the pope, following the 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu and Vatican II’s constitution Dei Verbum, approves of the use of the historical-critical method. Indeed, he says it is “an indispensable dimension of exegetical work” (pg. xv). This is because “it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on earth…Et incarnatus est–when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into history” (pg. xv). So then, “if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method–indeed, faith itself demands this” (ibid.).

This said, the limits of the historical-critical method must be observed. For anyone who thinks that the Bible is directly addressing him, here and now and today, “the first limit [of the method] is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method…” (pg. xvi). A related point is that the method, because it is concerned with things human (history), has to investigate the words of Scripture as primarily human words. It might occasionally, grudgingly admit that the words can have a “deeper” meaning than their face value historical one, but its object nevertheless remains the human and timebound (pg. xvii).

But, at the same time, because the method is inherently limited it cannot rule out of bounds additional layers of meaning in the Scriptures–namely, their meaning now: “a voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words; the individual writings [Schrifte] of the Bible point somehow to the living process that shapes the one Scripture [Schrift]” (pg. xviii). This living process, the thing by which the individual writings were composed, preserved, transmitted, read and re-read, and communally recognized as “Scripture” is not imposed from the outside upon the writings. Rather, particularly as the writings are read and re-read within the community, “Older texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts.” Further, “by being read anew, evolving in continuity with their original sense, tacitly corrected and given added depth and breadth of meaning,” (pp. xviii-xix) the Scriptures show themselves alive: “the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities, already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences, and new sufferings, in order to open up” (pg. xix).

We chiefly see this process, the pope says, when we watch the Bible unfold in the light of Jesus Christ. To be sure, doing this requires an act of faith, but it is not ungrounded faith. Rather, building on historical reason (the results of the historical-critical method), faith sees a fundamental unity to the Bible, convincing us that the Old and New Testaments belong together (pg. xix). This in turn allows us to re-read texts with which we thought ourselves already very familiar, and “understand anew the individual elements that have shaped it, without robbing them of their historical originality” (ibid.).

Now we are beyond mere historical exegesis and into theological exegesis. Again the pope stresses the value of the former: “Historical-critical interpretation of the text seeks to discover the precise sense the words were intended to convey at their time and place of origin. That is good and important” (pg. xix). However, we must remember two things: first, that all historical interpretations can claim only relative certainty, and second, that “any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time” (ibid.). As the words of “faith-history” mature, the common history that sustains the author as he writes implicitly contains future possibilities. This in fact, is what inspiration means. No author truly speaks as “a private, self-contained subject.” Rather, he “speaks in a living historical movement not created by him, nor even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work” (pg. xx).

Scripture is not merely “literature” (and, I add based on the pope’s discussion, cannot be properly interpreted merely by literary canons). “The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject–the pilgrim People of God–and lives within this same subject” (pg. xx). There are three subjects at work in Scripture and three levels of meaning: the individual authors of the texts, the collective People of God, and God Himself. This view of Scripture brings it out of the past (where all history, and all literature) is stuck and into the present: “The People of God–the Church–is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present” (pg. xxi).

This discussion of Scripture leads the pope to the purpose of his book, an examination of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. The Christology that is evident so early in Philippians 2:6-11 came from somewhere, and the pope does not see how it could have come merely from the historical level of meaning. Something more, something greater, something divine, is going on in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and by combining our faith in Christ with historical scholarship we can see that Jesus Christ truly is worthy of belief (pg. xxiii).

In what follows in his book, the pope says he is not attempting to attack contemporary exegesis at all. Rather, he says, he has “tried to go beyond purely historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible.” Although this requires faith, there is no intention to “give up serious engagement with history.”

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7 Responses to Benedict XVI On Biblical Exegesis and Faith in the Historical Jesus

  1. Chad Toney says:

    I really enjoyed B16′s book and look forward to your further thoughts on it.

  2. Chad Toney says:

    And I should say, I recently finished his Milestones: Memoirs 1927-9977, and in the context of Vatican II discussions, he talked about the historical-critical method and the theories of Revelation that were being debated. I couldn’t help but think, based on the conflict you’ve had with certain sectors of Reformedom, “Tim would probably really appreciate this” while reading it.

  3. Jonathan Prejean says:

    Sounds like you’re well on your way to knowing more than I could teach you. Got any plans to meet up with Daniel (Photios) Jones? We only met once, but that was an hours-long discussion in the Fuddrucker’s at the Irving Mall. (That reminds me that I wish I had a Spring Creek BBQ as close to me. *sigh*)

  4. Tim Enloe says:

    Well…I didn’t know that Daniel was in this area, let alone near enough to me that he could meet someone at Irving Mall (about 2 miles from my house!). I’ll have to look him up, for sure. Where are you, btw?

  5. Daniel is still a theology student at UD, last I heard. I lived in downtown Dallas (Bryan Place) for two years, and then we bought a house in Rowlett. But I decided that law firm life was not sustainable if I was going to spend as much time with my kids as I wanted to do, so I took an in-house position in Orange Country, CA. I absolutely love the job and the location, but O.C. is a bit of a culinary wasteland compared to Dallas!

    Granted, on a graduate school budget, I imagine you’re not eating out much, but if you ever do go out, there are tons of moderately priced, extremely tasty alternatives. Our mainstays for various occasions were (1) Pappadeaux, particularly when boiled crawfish were in season, but the crawfish bisque and Greek salad is cheap and always delicious (It’s good for an adult night out if you can find a babysitter, though kids are welcome) and (2) Chuy’s, a supercasual eatery which I think of it as Tex-New Mex rather than Tex-Mex, because of the liberal use of green chile, although there are plenty of options for those who (Another plus: best swirl margarita ever). Suffice it to say that they are unmatched by anything in O.C.!

    If I’m back in Dallas, I’ll have to take y’all out for dinner. Not sure when my next trip will be, but I’ll let you know.

  6. typo: The mysterious “those who” should have been “those who don’t dig spicy food.”

  7. Chad Toney says:

    I think Taylor Marshall is at UD right now too.

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