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“Exegetical” Preaching is Unbiblical; Topical Preaching is Transformational

The following is a thoughtful response by Brad Bigney (pastor of fast growing Grace Fellowship in Florence, KY) to the exegetical dogmatism of many Reformed Christians who think exegetical preaching is the kind of preaching that is most faithful to the Bible itself (e.g. Mark Dever includes exegetical preaching as one of the marks of a healthy church and trains other pastors after this standard).  After sitting under Brad’s preaching for 3 months, I’m starting to think that a good measure of topical preaching is actually a mark of a healthy church.

Why Do You Preach More Topical Sermons than Exegetical (Verse by verse through books of the Bible)?

From time to time people will ask me why I do so many topical sermon series instead of picking a book of the Bible and preaching through it verse by verse.

Here are some of the reasons why I preach the way I do here at Grace Fellowship:

1. Jesus preached topical sermons – if Jesus thought it was effective… so do I! Seriously… when you read through the Gospels you don’t see Jesus gathering a crowd and then starting to preach or teach verse by verse through one of the Old Testament books of the Bible they had at that time. He used visual illustrations, and He met the people right where they were and taught using just a verse or two for the basis of His teaching. It was hard hitting, and did not compromise God’s truth, but it was not an in depth explanation verse by verse through a book of the Bible.

2. There is no biblical record of the Apostle Paul or any other disciples ever preaching exegetically, verse by verse, sermons from a book of the Bible. You can see examples of this with Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts (on Mars Hill and other places).

3. There is no command in the New Testament instructing pastors to preach or teach verse by verse through books of the Bible. In Paul’s letters to Timothy, he doesn’t take time to exhort him to preach in a certain manner. He simply says to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).

4. Many times the emphasis on preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is driven by a belief that Bible information is the key to changing lives. Paul tells us that knowledge alone puffs up, but love edifies (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1). Not always, but many times the preachers and churches that are characterized by verse by verse preaching through books of the Bible are heavy on information or Bible facts, and much lighter on how those Bible truths apply to your life. I think that Bible application is the key to changing lives. Sheer volume of Bible information is not what changes lives. In-depth Greek or Hebrew word studies is not what changes lives. Understanding how to apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives is what produces a love and passion for changing & growing.

Too often the goal of exegetical preaching is simply “What?” “What does the Bible say?” Our goal at Grace Fellowship is not just “What?” but “So what?” and “How?” “How does that apply to your life today?” “How would you start doing what God’s Word says to do in that verse?” “What needs to happen for you to start obeying what is being taught there?”

The clear and practical application of God’s Word to a person’s life, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is what changes lives. As a communicator I certainly benefit from word studies, but I rarely choose to pass all the details of my study on to my listeners. Believe it or not… my goal is not the preaching or teaching itself… my goal is changed lives. I want to connect real people to a real God, through His life-changing Word.

5. Be sure you understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying it’s wrong to preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, but I am saying if you choose to do that, be careful. Make sure you don’t get caught up in your exegesis, and the details of your word studies, and lose sight of the main thing… communicating for changed lives.

6. There seems to be an arrogance among Christians who prefer exegetical verse by verse teaching of the Bible… as if they’ve got the corner on the market… they love God more… and they honor God’s Word more. This isn’t true of everyone, but I run into it frequently when this question of preaching style comes up. I rarely hear any topical preachers criticizing exegetical preachers, but I do hear quite a bit of criticism from exegetical preachers, and Christians who prefer that format, towards preachers who preach more topical or expositional sermons.

7. Look at the end result. I can’t speak for every other pastor who’s chosen to preach topical sermon series, but God has been very good to us here at Grace Fellowship. People are changing and growing because of what they’re learning from God’s Word. So if changed lives for the glory of God is the final goal, then look at the fruit of our ministry. Are people being saved? Is the Gospel being preached? Is Christ being exalted? Is the cross central in the preaching and teaching? Rather than backing away or watering it down, do we preach and teach the whole counsel of God’s Word – even the hard places? Are believers being fed and grounded in God’s Word to know how to handle life effectively by handling God’s Word accurately? Are people more devoted followers of Christ? Is the Bible our source of authority for making decisions and setting direction in our church? Is sin being exposed?

If all of that is happening effectively, I see no reason for alarm or concern. The comment I hear more than any other at our church from new people is “I’ve never grown this much in my life at any other church.” If changing and growing more and more into the image of Christ is the goal (see Roman 8:29) then it appears that God in His mercy has been pleased to use both topical and exegetical sermons to get us there.

8. It could be that this question regarding the style or format of preaching is centered around a personal preference more than it is the issue of “right” or “wrong.” It is the same as people who want to argue hymns versus choruses. I’m aware of people that leave our church for this and other matters of personal preference, and they are not wrong to do so. However, God has been using the topical or expositional style of preaching here at Grace Fellowship to bring people to Christ and root them in His Word and His grace.

9. Preaching and teaching topical messages does not mean it’s lighter in theology or preparation time. My first priority is the sermon preparation; I spend more time each week preparing my sermon than anything else I do. Preaching a topical message does not mean that it was just thrown together at the last minute. Also, preachers who preach topical sermons are not more liberal in their theology, and they are not less committed to the authority of God’s Word. God has graciously used people to communicate His Word who have been more topical or expositional rather than exegetical. Charles Spurgeon was certainly not liberal in his theology or uncommitted to God’s Word, yet he rarely preached an exegetical sermon. However, he always preached a biblical sermon that was anchored by a verse or verses that he was driving home to the hearts of the people. He preached for changed lives, and God blessed.

10. Format or style of preaching is no indication of the level of love for God’s Word. I hope that my love for God’s Word and my submission to its authority is equal to any exegetical preacher. While my messages are not usually rooted in one passage that is being unpacked verse by verse they are rooted in the truth of God’s Word, and each point is anchored by a biblical truth or verse that from Scripture.

HT :: Grace Fellowship Sermons

Book Review: Participatory Biblical Exegesis by Matthew Levering

The following is a book review of: Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 310 pp. For the audio version (which has a more elaborate conclusion) click the play button below or download it to your itunes.  For a PDF version of this book review, click here.

Levering’s proposal in Participatory Biblical Exegesis poignantly addresses what R.W.L. Moberly calls “a curious situation” in Christian biblical exegesis (2). Modern Christian biblical interpretation has heavily relied on historical-critical methods that tend to preclude interpretations that invoke the most important divine and spiritual realities to which the biblical texts refer (2).  Since historical-critical inquiry and discovery has proven fruitful for a fuller understanding of the linear-historical realities of the biblical texts, rather than propose something less than historical-critical methodology, Levering hopes to redeem the valuable finds of historical-critical methodology for Christian interpretation by proposing something more: a broader understanding of history as including also a participatory dimension (1).

His proposal is that history is not merely linear-historical but also metaphysically participatory (finite participation in divine being).  Therefore in order to do justice to the human and historical aspects of exegesis, Levering argues that one must go beyond the linear-historical dynamics of the text to account for the realities beyond the words (the res, 11).  The ultimate argument of the book, then, is about the nature of history (3).

The Advent of Historical Critical Methods

Chapters one and two seek to demonstrate the “gradual displacement” of the patristic-medieval participatory approach to scripture (14). Levering hopes to shine light on exactly why history came to be conceived as purely linear-historical and divine realities as extrinsic.  This metaphysical shift takes place in “the Scotist rupture” of the fourteenth century (19).  Scotus rejected the Platonic understanding of participation and the Aristotelian understanding of ultimate teleology that Christian theology had, up to this point in history, largely appropriated in Christian theology (19).

After locating the origins of the modern understanding of history in medieval nominalism, Levering hopes to show the implications such a view of history has for biblical exegesis.  He does this by looking at how biblical commentary of the same text (John 3:27-36) drastically changes over time, starting with Aquinas’ exegesis that illumines the participatory elements of historical reality (25) and ending with modern modes of biblical exegesis that marginalize all such approaches (53).  For Christian interpreters, “commentaries do not [easily] blend history and theology” because the modern idea of history makes history “exegetically problematic” (52).

Participatory Biblical Exegesis

In chapter three, as Levering begins to offer a vision for participatory biblical exegesis, the real concerns come to the fore as he warns that notions of history and biblical interpretation that do not involve recognition of divine realities are ultimately “anthropocentric (and thus, from a Bible’s perspective, idolatrous)” (64).  Renewing the tradition of patristic medieval participatory biblical exegesis, on the other hand, offers Christian interpreters the sorely needed “theocentric model of biblical interpretation” (64).  Levering marshals the brilliance of St. Augustine’s insight into the nature of teaching: “all teaching is about res, realities” and therefore, “in order to understand true teaching one must learn how to judge the relative importance of various res, so as to be able to get to the heart of the teaching” (65).  To do otherwise would be to cling to “created realities, loving them without reference to their Creator”—a “doomed enterprise” that confuses the means as above the end (65).  (Here is the real heart of Levering’s proposal; the rest of the book is historical/theological/exegetical troubleshooting. In this chapter, most of his ideas find expression.)

The ultimate end of all teaching “aims at building up love of God and neighbor in ecclesial communion” (68). Humility requires that one recognize the “norm of Scriptural reading” of the Body of Christ (68). The scriptures ultimate telos (my word, not his) is to mediate an encounter with God: “’existential’ participation” that amounts to God’s own teaching which “re-orders” one’s loves (69).  This effectively reverses the hermeneutical priority from linear-historical to existential-participatory (69).  The author then further expounds on this key idea through Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture as “transformative sacra doctrina” (71) that must be understood as a unified whole rather than “a mere repository of facts and ideas” (75).

In the second half of chapter three, Levering is forced to take the reader a step back from the euphoric teachings of Augustine and Aquinas to revisit the muddled issues of contemporary biblical interpretation (76).  Levering by then, however, has made his point well: linear-historical tools cannot be employed in a “neutral” fashion (77): they either include or preclude the divine realities as part of real history.  Levering claims not only that a participatory mode of exegesis is necessary for discerning the divine res, but he makes the further claim that this approach is “required to account for even the linear-historical complexity of the biblical texts” (77).  But is such a participatory perspective able to capture fully the “unsystematic” messiness of human authorship and intention?

Levering argues that his approach does not demand “that all biblical authors/redactors, working in various genres, are saying and intending the same thing,” but only “that Scripture’s human authorial teachings and intensions be recognized as belonging to the participatory framework—divine revelation and inspiration—of the Trinitarian doctrina” (80). Problematic passages must be governed by the schema of doctrina, which includes abandoning a particular explanation of any passage “if it be proved with certainty to be false”  (81).  Levering backs this claim by appealing to Dei Verbum’s doctrine of inspiration that claims that Biblical interpretation “seeks salvific truth” (83-84).  This chapter concludes by an affirmation of the “centrality of God the Teacher, in whose teaching exegetes participate” (89).

God as the Teacher

Chapter four is concerned with affirming the necessary locus of receptivity to God the Teacher—the “divinely ordained fellowship” (90).  Here Levering is concerned to show that his proposal is more promising for finding common ground for dialogue with Jewish interpreters than the “comparative textology” of mere historians who ignore the divine and ecclesial aspects of biblical exegesis (96).  The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, in spite of its “good job” in some respects, is troubling on account of its “presumption of a solely linear-historical model” to both Jews and Christians who see Scripture as more than just “ancient texts” (96).  To do justice to real history, including the “communal participatory appropriation” of Scripture, biblical interpretation must heed the communal traditions in which the biblical texts are “operative” (99).  This aspect of historical transmission should distill the fears of “total semantic indeterminacy” (100).  To ignore communal interpretation is fatal because the true meaning of Scripture is “embodied” in this “communal, intellectual, moral, and liturgical” history (104, 102).

Communal Context of Kenotic Love

As we discover in chapter five, for Levering, the communal teaching of the Christian church that sets the context for all exegesis is “kenotic love” that includes “cruciform peace” and is therefore more promising that the Spinozian undermining of ecclesial authority (140).  In the end, Levering comes through with a robustly Christian biblical exegesis that “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in ecclesial communion, understands the fullness of sacred scriptures because it participates in the realities to which they refer—specifically the “Christological plan of human salvation” (143).


Levering’s narrative of the origins of modern notions of history will need to be evaluated by interested historians, and his peculiar Platonic understanding of participation (though nowhere extensively explained) may not be shared by all Christians (although some account of our participation in God is indeed necessary).  Certainly, however, Levering has exposed a naïveté in Christian biblical exegesis by showing the woeful inadequacy of any interpretation that does not take the divine realities into account as real history.  In this respect, his work is a brilliant myth buster, forcibly deconstructing the illusion of neutrality in historical-critical methods that exclude the divine realities in history and perhaps an eye-opener to what should be more obvious to those who cherish this aspect of Scripture above all else.  This insight is especially relevant to those who use the historical-critical method in apologetic postures.

Although Protestants will perhaps wish to dispute his argument for ecclesiologically governed interpretation, I would argue (as a Protestant) that such Protestants engage in performative contradictions anytime they use the word “heretic.” Although Levering’s work still leaves certain questions unanswered, it appears to be more suggestive than comprehensive, inviting other Christians to join him in rethinking an authentically Christian hermeneutical framework that does not shy away from all useful critical tools but keeps the divine realities central to the task of interpretation.

by Bradley R. Cochran

Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

The following is a book review of the pope’s book on Jesus: Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007).  In this book Ratzinger applies a methodology he discusses more fully elsewhere, I have attempted to describe Ratzinger’s methodology before reviewing the book, asking whether he is true to his own methodology.  Thus a full bibliography and all footnotes appear at the end of the post.


The quest for the historical Jesus has led to a dizzying “jungle” of contradictory reconstructions that make the possibility of having friendship with Jesus seem like “clutching at thin air.”[1]  Ratzinger thinks there is an urgent need for “a criticism of criticism”—that is, a criticism of historical criticism.[2]  He offers an alternative approach that he hopes will, in the end, make Jesus more “intelligible”[3] than the litany of speculative reconstructions.  Ratzinger wants to take us from the quest for the historical Jesus to the request for authentic exegesis.    

Proposing the Methodological Synthesis

Ratzinger only articulates what he considers a viable alternative methodology for biblical interpretation after first criticizing what he considers to be the dominant methodology: the exclusive use of the historical-critical method.  Thus, his articulation has two aspects: a negative critique and a positive alternative.  The latter should be understood in light of the former.  The problem, as Ratzinger sees it, with the dominant methodology is at least twofold.  First, the historical-critical method, although yielding great insights, has an inherent limitation: it must limit itself only to the past, and therefore has an inability to speak to the present,[4] and 2) it excludes a priori the supernatural and thereby “determines in advance what may or may not be.”[5]  If the former negative critique is self-explanatory (the historical method is proper concerned, not with making a text “speak” to today, but only with history) the latter needs more explanation. 

Ratzinger believes that the dominant methodology in biblical interpretation, taking its direction from the historical-critical methodology, attempts to impose the scientific method of natural sciences on biblical interpretation.  He believes the most influential application of this methodology has taken the form of a “simplistic transferal of science’s evolutionary model to spiritual history.”[6]  Although the details of biblical interpretation are debated, Ratzinger believes the dominant methodology for modern exegesis is the same.[7]  The presupposition of this “scientific” (read: naturalistic) method is that all reports of supernatural phenomenon in the Bible must be assumed to be non-historical and explained by way of evolutionary development of some sort from the simple to the complex.[8]  That is, the Bible is divided into pieces that come from various hypothetical sources, which pieces contradict each other because they are snapshots of the different stages of the development of Christology.[9]  Because this application depends on the naturalistic presuppositions of the historical-critical method—and on the Kantian premise that “the other” is unintelligible or unknowable—the “debate” over exegesis is not so much about history, Ratzinger argues, but more about philosophy.  “Faith itself is not a component of this method, nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events.”[10] 

Once one understands this negative critique, Ratzinger’s proposal for an alternative methodology is more easily apprehended.  First, the exegete cannot exclude the possibility that God could “speak” in human words and also “act” in history.[11]  To do so would confuse the distinction between a naturalistic methodology (explaining history in purely naturalistic ways) and a naturalistic worldview (that excludes the possibility anything supernatural).[12]  Second, one must supplant the assumption of discontinuity (derived from the evolutionary model) with one of “organic continuity” between the Old and New Testaments.[13]  Ratzinger calls this the analogia scripturae (the analogy of scripture) in which one assumes that Bible is indeed a unified book, coherent and intelligible.  After all, this is the way the church—who accepted the canonical literature as a whole—understood it. 

With these principles at work, the process of exegesis is twofold.  First one must interpret the text in light of its historical origins and proper historical context.  This part of exegesis is indespensible because “it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events.”[14]  Second, one must go beyond this to understand the texts in light of what Ratzinger calls “the total movement of history” and in light of Jesus Christ as the center of that history.[15]  This second step involves what Ratzinger calls a “Christological hermeneutic.”[16]  It also involves the aforementioned analogia scripturae which Ratzinger understands to be based in practice of canonical exegesis.  He also believes this canonical approach allows for human utterances to have more meaning than what the human author may have been “immediately aware of at the time.”[17]  Only by combining these two steps in a methodological synthesis can one arrive at an authentic understanding of the Bible.[18]

I will now limit my critique to just three chapter’s of Ratzinger’s book.    

Chapter 1: The Baptism of Jesus

The first thing to note about Ratzinger’s first chapter in Jesus of Nazareth on Jesus’ baptism is that Ratzinger has certainly employed a Christological hermeneutic.  He understands the genealogies, as well as the baptism of Jesus, to have a universal scope—and this places Jesus as the centerpiece of real history.  Ratzinger makes the case that Jesus’ baptism should be understood as a repetition of all of world history (both past and future) where Jesus wins a cosmic battle with the Devil who holds all people captive.[19]  Since his baptism is an anticipation of the cross and resurrection, it is Jesus’ descent into the inferno (the underworld) and his taking on the sins of the whole world as one who is equal with God[20] which also makes him and “the true Jonah.”[21] 

Ratzinger gets to these sorts of conclusions, however, by a complicated series of claims and associations that he does not sufficiently ground.  He himself appreciates how easily it could appear that he has strayed from the text, for he asks “Has this ecclesiastical interpretation and rereading of the event of Jesus’ Baptism taken us too far away from the Bible?”  He then seeks to show how this is not the case by arguing that John’s “lamb symbolism” includes all this.[22]   He appeals to Joachim Jeremias briefly in support.  To be fair, the imagery that connects Jesus with the Passover lamb may establish Jesus as the one who, through his death, saves Israel, and on Isaiah and John the Baptist’s words, “the whole world.”  Yet it is not clear how this necessarily entails the gospel writer’s wanting us to see Jesus’ baptism as a recapitulation of all of world history and a descent into hell.  There is a considerable gap, then, between the ambitious exegetical points that Ratzinger wants to make here, and the legwork he exercises to establish his points well.  Other problems appear with his exegesis.  For example, he supports his claim that Jesus descended into hell by citing Cyril of Jerusalem,[23] but this is neither a responsible Christological hermeneutic or historical-critical method—it is an appeal to a church father.      

Ratzinger also fails to seriously engage the historical-critical method.  When he seeks to support his claims by appealing to others scholars, this is the exception.  In fact, it is so rare that it appears random.  Why, for example, does he appeal to Gnilka to support his association of the Spirit with the dove of Jesus’ baptism, but not offer any scholarly backing on the rest of his analysis of the symbolism of John’s baptism or his suggestion that Jesus and John were possibly close to the Qumran community?  For the most part, he simply makes all sorts of associations and claims about the text without taking the time to carefully explain how he is confident that his interpretation is well supported.  For example, he tells us the key to understanding Jesus’ response to John (about fulfilling all righteousness) is in understanding the word “righteousness” as this: Jesus’ “Yes to God’s will” and his expression of solidarity with all mankind—even a “confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness.”[24]  Exactly how Ratzinger knows all this is unclear, for he does not offer any lucid exegetical argumentation. 

He bases a great deal of his analysis on his understanding of the ritual of Baptism during Jesus time.[25]  He asserts that baptism, through its water symbolism, had at least six different meanings (death, life, purification, liberation, new beginnings, resurrection).  He does not take the trouble to give the reader indication of whether there are differences or uncertainties among biblical critics about the symbolism of baptism in Second Temple Judiasm or among the Essenes.  The way he makes so many claims about the meanings of John’s baptism one is left to assume Ratzinger must believe there is simply unanimous agreement about such questions.  He treats them as certain and uncontroversial, then bases his further conclusions on them.  He simply tells us that the water of baptism was a symbol of death because the waters were associated with the destructive powers of ocean floods, and yet it was also a symbol of life since rivers were a source of life.  But how do we know that this is how John the Baptist was likely to understand his baptism?  How likely is it that John the Baptist—possibly being an Essene—would have incorporated all these possible symbolisms (some of which are opposite in meaning) into his water baptism?  Ratiznger gives us no confidence that he is grounding what he says on careful study.  He simply continues to add more and more meaning to the symbolism—it also means “purification” (in what sense?), liberation from the past (how do we know?), and therefore new birth.[26]

Finally, in terms of the more critical questions about the legitimacy of gospel authorship, the authenticity of the texts he quotes from, whether the gospel writers might be giving a “supernatural” spin to natural events—all these sorts of critical questions are ignored.  The answers to these questions, however, are assumed: the gospel writers are to be trusted.  Not once does Ratzinger really call into question the truth of their accounts. For example, he makes passing mention of Jesus being equal to God.[27]  He simply notes in passing (and with excitement) that all the anticipations of Jesus baptism have “now become reality”![28]  While Ratzinger remains faithful to his promise to go beyond the historical-critical method and take a faith-posture to the text, those who expected a serious engagement with the historical-critical method are likely to be very disappointed by his neglect to establish his assumptions.

Chapter Six: The Disciples

Chapter six is full of digressions that do not appear to relate to the text Ratizinger hopes to exegete.  After pointing out that Jesus sent the disciples to preach and cast out demons, he somehow winds up making the point that when we belong to Jesus the allure of everything else in the world looses its power.[29]  Ratzinger then makes the point that to “exorcise” the world is to establish “reason,” which reminds him of a passage from one of Paul’s letters and a quote from Heinrich Schlier about the threat of the “anonymous atmosphere.”[30]  These points all seem miles away from the concern of the text.  They are more like devotional meditations than an exegesis of the passages under consideration.  That is not to say that I cannot see the purported connections that Ratzinger is trying to make—they just do not seem appropriate for someone attempting an exegetical approach to scripture (read: they are not, strictly speaking, points from the text). 

I find him in a similar excursion when after noting that Jesus gave the apostles power to heal the sick and blind, he explains how becoming spiritually one with God is true healing, which is a process.[31]  One must also, in this process of healing, use her power of “reason.”[32]  Now is all that really the point of Jesus’ giving the disciples power to heal the deaf, dumb, and blind in the gospels?  If so, it is not obvious, and Ratzinger does not make any such argument. 

This is not to say that Ratzinger makes no effort at interacting with scholarly work in this chapter.  For example, he appeals to recent scholarship to clarify that “the Cananaean” means “the Zealot”; he shows knowledge that some manuscripts have Christ sending out seventy two disciples to preach and heal (rather than seventy); he dismisses some scholars who argue that “Boanerges” indicates that John and James were associated with the Zealot movement, etc.[33]  However, overall, his treatment of the text does not seem very focused.  He deviates from the exegetical task so often and for so long that he has to keep writing: “Let us return to our text” (because there is no other smooth transition back to the text![34]).  This makes his engagement with exegesis superficial.  One sometimes gets the impression that he only interacts with exegetical points long enough to springboard into a devotional thought. 

Chapter Nine: Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration

Chapter nine betrays a more sustained focus and better interaction with historical-critical scholarship.  The gospel writers, Ratzinger argues, want us to see Peter’s confession only in tandem with the his suffering on the cross.  He grounds this premise in the structure of the synoptic gospels, and therefore in the text.[35]  He also places his understanding of the confession in John on the structure of John’s gospel.[36]  I find his meditation about world religions having a “correct” but inadequate understanding of Jesus much closer to the text than some of his other detours.[37]  He sustains a meaningful interaction with Pierre Grelot in which he gives arguments and reasons for concluding that Grelot’s historical reconstruction is “on the wrong track” and asserts that “scholarship overplays its hand” in such reconstructions.[38]  Also, Ratzinger gives us an idea of different ways people have interpreted the time references in the story of the transfiguration before revealing which understanding he favors.[39]

Nevertheless, pieces of the exegesis in chapter nine are still debatable, and some of them lack serious interaction with the historical-critical method.  His assumption that the disciples understood Jesus’ divinity before his resurrection is debatable, and engagement with differing opinions of scholars on this issue would have been more helpful.[40]  In his discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles, he does not give his sources for the three aspects of Jewish feasts.[41]  Is this threefold designation the way Jews summarize the meaning of all their feasts or is this simply expedient for making a Christological point?  One is left to wonder.  Also, his point that Jesus’ glow during the Transfiguration came from “within” whereas Moses came from “without” is not in the text.[42]          

Conclusion: Practicing The Methodological Synthesis

One might agree with Ratzinger’s methodological proposal as stated above, yet be unhappy about the way he performs this method.  One can understand the “rules” of a game and still loose that game by not playing well.  Whether Ratzinger has the right rules for properly authentic exegesis is one question, whether he has played the game well by them well is quite another.  In order for Ratzinger to play well by the rules he has set out, he must first do justice to the insights of the historical-critical method (step one) and then surpass these insights through a faith-wrought Christological hermeneutic that does justice to the analogia scripturae.  As my analysis shows, Ratzinger delivers on his promise to employ a Christological hermeneutic (step 2).  Still one might wish at times that he would employ this hermeneutic more responsibly, and it should be clear that there will be a wide range of understandings about how this part of his synthesis is to be executed. 

The question of whether he delivers on his promise to give serious attention to the historical-critical method is more debatable.  Since according to Ratzinger’s own categories, the historical-critical method does not require faith, it should be noted that the majority of Ratzinger’s insights assume and require faith on the part of the interpreter.  This indicates that the bulk of his book is an attempt to harvest the fruits of his understanding of the Christological hermeneutic.  Since whatever insights appear to require faith, according to his terms, should not be counted as insights proper to the historical-critical method, it should be clear that while Ratzinger has included this step in his methodology, he has used it only sparsely. 

This raises a further question.  Does Ratzinger intend to ground his Christological method in some way on the historical-critical method?  Since the methodology as Ratzinger lays it out has numbered steps, we should be inquiring about whether he applies these steps in their numerical order.  In fact, however, it does not appear that he has even remotely attempted to systematically begin with the historical-critical method before moving to draw his Christological insights.  Therefore, either he has failed his own method or—what is more likely—the numbering of his steps was not intended to be understood as an ordering of the steps.  If this is the case, given Ratzinger’s performance as evaluated above, it seems appropriate to ask: Can the authentic exegete get carried away with drawing all sorts of Christological points in his exegesis while paying scarce attention to the historical-critical method?



Crandall, G. Allan. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Dialog 47, no. 1 (2008): 82 – 84.

Hays, Richard B. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. First Things, no. 175 (Ag-S 2007): 49 – 53.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 318 – 320.

Morgan, Robert. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Expository Times 119, no. 6 (2008): 282 – 283.

Ratzinger, Joseph. “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today.” This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life. Reprint N.p., Summer 1988.

________. Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.  



[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), xvi.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, Reprint N.p. (Summer 1988): 6. 

[3] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xxii.

[4] Ibid., xvi.

[5] Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 16. 

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 8. “It goes without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details.  But it is likewise true that their basic methodlogical approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis.  Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.” 

[8] Ibid, 13. 

[9] Ibid., 14. “It is with this basic conviction that Bultmann, with the majority of modern exegetes, read the Bible.  He is certain that it cannot be the way it is depicted in the Bible, and he looks for methods to prove the way it really had to be.” 

[10] Ibid., 4. 

[11] Ibid., 16. “He may not exclude a priori that (almighty) God could speak in human words in the world.  He may not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human history, however improbable such a thing might at first appear.”  This also corresponds to Ratzinger’s language about giving equal weight to both “word” and “event.” Ibid., 17.   

[12] Ibid.  “Such evidence is admissible only under the presupposition that the principle of scientific method, namely that ever effect which occurs can be explained in terms of purely immanent relationships within the operation itself, is not only valid methodologically but is true in and of itself.” 

[13] Ibid., 17. 

[14] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xv.

[15] Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 17.

[16] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xix. 

[17] Ibid. 

[18] Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 17. 

[19] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, 20. 

[20] Ibid., 20. 

[21] Ibid., 18. 

[22] Ibid., 21. 

[23] Ibid., 19. 

[24] Ibid., 17.

[25] Ibid., 15-16.

[26] Ibid., 16. 

[27] Ibid., 20. 

[28] Ibid., 18. 

[29] Ibid., 174.

[30] Ibid., 174 – 175.

[31] Ibid., 176 – 177. 

[32] Ibid., 177. 

[33] Ibid., 177 – 179. 

[34] Ibid., 172, 177.

[35] Ibid., 287. 

[36] Ibid., 289. 

[37] Ibid., 291. 

[38] Ibid., 303. 

[39] Ibid., 306. 

[40] Ibid., 304 – 305. 

[41] Ibid., 307. 

[42] Ibid.,310.

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