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Exegesis and Theology: A Case Study of Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 is used by Christian historians, philosophers, and theologians alike. By surveying the writings of three Christian thinkers, I hope to underscore the different ways each author uses the same text but for different reasons.  In my conclusion, I will offer several distinctions toward understand the relationships between exegesis and theology.  Our inquiry will expose (among other things) the value and limitations of historical inquiry for authentic Christian theology, the relationship between Christian faith and historical-critical inquiry, the influence of social location on a Christian’s exegesis, and different Christian approaches toward reviving authentic theology in the postmodern period.

Sergius Bulgakov’s Treatment: Kenosis as a Model for Divine-Creaturely Relations

References in this section come from: Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008). 472. pp.

Sergius Bulgakov was an Eastern Orthodox Russian Priest (1871-1944) writing systematic theology in Paris as a dean at Saint Sergius Theological Institute, occupying the chair of dogmatic theology from 1925 until his death in 1944. Thus, his social location created a open environment for doing distinctively Christian theology.  Bulgakov’s Lamb of God ambitiously attempts to explain what few have thought explainable: How could divine nature be united to human nature? While the Chalcedonian creed affirms such a union, Bulgakov argues that this creed unnaturally juxtaposes these two natures in one hypostasis in a way that seems like dogmatic “abracadabra” (63). How can the infinite be finite and the immutable become mutable? Taking Chalcedonian Christology as the starting point for constructive Christology, he hopes to address this Christological problematic. His work presumes a need to “clarify precisely what occurred in the Incarnation” (221) rather than simply affirming the Incarnation as an inexplicable mystery, for the latter would be an “inappropriate” way of proceeding “for a theologian who [makes] this the main subject of his investigation” (30).

The usefulness of Philippians 2 to Bulgakov’s proposal in this context can be viewed from several angles. It allows him to force upon his readers the weight of the problem to which his book is addressed: “the Creator became a creature” (213).  He admits that Philippians 2 is the subject of a number of disputes among interpreters, but insists that at least “one thing is indisputable”: that God became a creature “must be understood and received with all responsible realism, that is, without any docetic interpretations” (214).  This plays an important role in Bulgakov’s attempt to persuade his readers that his controversial ideas are necessary to make sense of the incarnation.  Emphasizing the humanity of Christ so forcibly functions to give a subsequent attractiveness to his claims of 1) the dual modality of God: that God’s divine being exists in two modes—God’s being “in himself” (infinite, uncreated, immutable) and God’s being “for Himself” or “outside Himself” (finite, created, mutable) and 2) the theo-anthropology of man: part of man is “eternal” (93) and has “God’s essence” (94).

By claiming that creation is a mode of God’s existence (God for Himself) and that man is part God (so to speak), Bulgakov hopes to make the union between God and man less like opposite poles of existence coming together in an ontologically awkward train wreck.  If part of God is Sophia (creaturely existence) and part of man is God (Sprit), their union can be conceived more naturally. In short, Philippians 2 is a convenient text for giving credibility to Bulgakov’s paradigm for understanding God’s relation to the world (his doctrine of Sophia) because “the kenosis [described in Philippians] expresses the general relation of God to the world” (223).  All of creation is but “a kenotic act of God” (223).

Larry Hurtado’s Treatment: Christological Ode as Evidence of Early Devotion

References in this section come from: Hurtado, W. Larry.  How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. pp. vii + 234.

Larry Hurtado’s social location is the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  His research grants depend on the approval of a community that values “history” according to modern standards (i.e. as excluding supernatural explanations for historical phenomenon).  Hurtado’s aim in How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is to dignify Christian origins from the stigma of having been corrupted over time by later pagan religious influence and to locate a shocking explosion of Jesus devotion that, as far as the evidence shows, must be dated long before our first Christian sources from Paul and Pliny the Younger (in fact, as far as we can tell, it may have begun soon after Jesus’ execution—about the time Christians think Jesus Resurrected!).

For this kind of agenda, Hurtado finds Philippians useful in at least two ways.  First, since Philippians is regarded by scholarly consensus to be genuinely Pauline and dated around 60 C.E., it is of vital importance as evidence of early Christian thought.  Thus, by making a case against the Adamic interpretation of Jesus’ being in the “form of God” before his self-emptying, Hurtado finds within the text a “high Christology,” for he argues that the syntax of the Greek “practically requires” that Jesus’ being “equal with God” as the parallel to being “in the form of God” (100).  Second, since such “high Christology” is located in a Christological ode and therefore does not originate with Paul, “well before this epistle the idea of Jesus’ ‘pre-existence’ had become a part of Christian belief” (101).  Third, this text works for Hutrado as evidence against the “evolutionary proposal” that sees Christianity’s belief in the deity of Jesus as the inevitable influence of pagan religion rather than an outgrowth (or “mutation”) of Jewish monotheism (15).  Since “Philippians 2:9-11 is adapted from, and makes deliberate allusion to, biblical and Jewish tradition” (being something like a Christological midrash with ubiquitous allusions to OT passages), the readers are expected to “bring to the passage” a “biblical/Jewish” framework “not some putatively pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer-myth, or some other scheme such as Roman emperor-enthronement or the apotheosis of heroes” (95).

Tilley’s Treatment: Kenosis as “Not the Point”

References in this section come from: Terrence Tilley. The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice. Maryknoll, New York, 2008. 302 pp.

Terrence W. Tilley is a Professor of Catholic Theology and Chair of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.  His agenda in The Disciples’ Jesus is to completely redefine Christology in the hopes of making it more “practical.” His book is thoroughly colored with linguistic dualisms: practice vs. theory (1), practical vs. theoretical (2), doctrine vs. practical theology (3), spectators vs. disciples (15). Tilley’s book is an “essay” but not a “system” (xii).  His project displaces the sacred scriptures as “a theological locus” in favor of the scriptures as a “theological form” for traversing practices (xi). He attempts to redefine all the terms in order to relativize theory, doctrine, and “systems” (i.e. classical Christology). For example, he redefines Christology as “reconciling practices” so that even if one of the practices might be considered believing, it is seen as one practice among many in a complex nexus of “patterns of actions” (13).  He also redefines the foundational language of theology in general by distinguishing between beliefs and doctrines.  Beliefs have truth-value and qualify as one of the practices; doctrines govern the practice of beliefs but surprisingly have zero truth-value (203-205)!  With these two amazing moves of redefinition, Tilley manages to create an entirely new discipline: the discipline of Christology! (If we follow Tilley’s definition, we will have to find a new word for referring to what everybody else calls Christology: the study of the person and work of Christ).  Also important for his exegesis is this: doctrines are “shorthand guides derived from good practice” (208, italics mine).

There is a certain shock value to Tilley’s approach in his treatment of the famous Philippians hymn traditionally believed to contain a high Christology.  Philippians 2 is the classic proof text for Jesus’ pre-existence before his kenosis into manhood.  One might think this would be a poor choice of text on Tilley’s part after having claimed that Christian practice (Christology) is not dependent upon doctrine but vice versa, for Paul seems to base his injunction to the Philippians on a notion of kenosis that presupposes Jesus’ pre-existence.  First, Tilley claims that we cannot “be sure that the hymns [in Scripture] were preserved because they expressed the people’s faith” (109). Then, he asserts that “Paul’s point was not to assert preexistence”; rather, Paul is simply using rhetoric to make a point about having the right phroneõ (a term that means “mind” or “attitude” but Tilley translates as “ways,” 110-111).  Ironically, although Tilley affirms that Paul is reminding the Philippians to act the way Jesus did, he tries his best to explain this imperative in a way that excludes the description of what Jesus did (relinquish the mode of being he had in his pre-existence) from qualifying as part of Paul’s “point,” since he cannot allow doctrine (in this case pre-existence) to be the grounds for practice (in this case the way of humble servitude).

Conclusions: Theology & Exegesis

Theology is related to biblical exegesis in many ways.  First, the texts that are the focus of exegesis presume all sorts of theological realities.  Second, the social location of the Christian exegete often determines the way they exegete and therefore whether they are card-carrying theologians or undercover theologians.  For example, some Christian commentators presume or focus on the divine realities (the res) to which the texts refer (Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 65).  Here Bulgakov is our only good example.  When Christian commentators focus on such realities, their posture toward the historical documents of Scripture is one of faith and trust.  Their exegesis is thematically theological.  Other Christians, however, thematically suspend such realities in the interest of focusing on the human dynamics of the text and making contributions to a broader discussions taking place in a broader discourse largely outside the Christian community.  Here Hurtado is our example.  When Christian commentators aim their work at such broader secular discussions, they must present their work in ways that are persuasive to the presumptions that govern such discourse.  In the case of secular history, this requires excluding appeals to divine realities (the res).  Thus, such exegetes are considered historians and their commentaries on biblical texts are categorized as historical.  Often, as in the case of Hurtado, their agenda is apologetic.  Here we have two spheres of discourse: theological exegesis (Bulgakov) and historical exegesis (Hurtado).

Third, the object of biblical exegesis (the texts) appears to play a major role in the justification of one’s theology.  Both Bulgakov and Tilley feel the need to ground their arguments using Scripture.  Alas! Scripture still carries weight in the church (even if there is a wide ranging continuum on which we might place each theologian).  Bulgakov, in his treatment of Philippians 2, brings in a number of other dogmatic sources—the gospel of John, the “divinely inspired” Chalcedonian creed, other Pauline letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8:9), patristic exegesis, contemporary exegetical consensus, etc. (213-17).  He accepts traditional Christian dogma as represented in the Creed of Chalcedon as his starting point.  The intention of his historical survey of patristic theology and his own exegetical endeavors is not to suspend his creedal convictions to “prove” them from Scripture. He wants rather to develop the Chalcedonian dogma or explain it more precisely, not prove it. Unlike Bulgakov, some Christians who believe the Bible to be inspired (particularly Protestants) thematically suspend the dogmas of Creeds (dogmatic tradition) under the conviction that Scripture itself should be the norm of all norms, and thus (at least in principle) be capable of reforming Creedal dogmatics.  Yet even the Creeds themselves were formulated as resolutions to competing ways of interpreting Scripture, demonstrating that even those who rely on the Creeds are (consciously or unconsciously) indirectly allowing the biblical witness to “norm” their theology.  The ethos of patristic theologians (who wrote the Creeds) was to stay faithful to Scripture (which involves exegesis) in their theology.

Fourth, the theology of Christian historians often appears to set their agenda for historical research.  Hurtado, for example, does his best to clean up the mess historians have made with the Bible.  He points the evidence in a direction that fits comfortably with what the texts themselves say (devotion to Jesus happened very early—maybe even right after the execution, it was not started by the influence of pagan religion, etc.).  Yet Hurtado’s work is a great example of what is called “the impasse between exegesis and theology.”  It should be obvious that any theological claims about the res are hermetically sealed off from his work.  His agenda requires it, for he wishes to force the secular discourse to face the historical evidence, but to keep his case from easy dismissal by larger secular discourse he must forgo theology.  It appears to me that Christians need people like Hurtado to bring sobriety to the secular discourse and not let historians so easily get away with distorting the evidence to undermine Christian faith.

But is there a necessary, insurmountable chasm between exegesis and theology?  Not necessarily.  For as we have seen, both Bulgakov and Tilley need exegesis to do theology persuasively.  Therefore, they can often fit like hand-in-glove. If Christians are concerned with doing theology within the ecclesial context, they need not worry about suspending their attempts to explore the possible realities to which the biblical texts refer (realities that disclose revelation from God).  The insurmountable impasse is between anti-supernaturalism and theological exegesis.  Inasmuch as one methodologically rules out their theological convictions from a secular discourse in order to draw attention to one’s arguments and evidence, such methodology can never finally result in authentic theology—even if it can make that “leap” more historically credible for those willing to go beyond secular (read: anti-supernatural) historical-critical methodology.

Here we have stumbled upon another distinction: historical critical methodology and anti-supernatural presuppositions.  So long as the historical-critical method is in the hands of mostly secular anti-supernaturalists, historical inquiry will seem almost inseparably wed to anti-supernatural presuppositions.  But the question we must ask over and over again when considering whether historical-critical methodology is at an impasse with theology is this: In whose hands? If complemented by Christian presuppositions, historical inquiry might not only make Christian faith historically credible, but reveal the Word made flesh in real history (e.g. taking the biblical narratives seriously with an attitude of trust, looking to the lives of the apostles and the continuity of their teaching, looking more carefully at linguistic norms of ancient Greek to illumine New Testament Greek, etc.).  In secular hands, historical inquiry “shows” all sorts of embarrassing things about Christianity that discredit Christian faith (Jesus never existed; belief in his divinity was the inevitable influence of pagan religion; the New Testament is unrealiable, etc.)  In Levering’s hands, history becomes participatory and original historical meanings of the biblical text reveal realities beyond the text.  So the question we must ask is: In whose hands?

The question of what qualifies as “fair play” in exegesis, however, is a much more complicated question.  The question is so complex that it stands as a good candidate for qualifying as one of the great “mysteries” of the faith.  What complicates the issue is this: limiting the message of God to the best discernable human intensions in the words would contradict the way the Apostles appear to use the Old Testament, but opening the possibilities of meaning beyond the original human intensions in the words makes Scripture vulnerable to abuse, semantic abracadabra, and eisegesis.  A middle ground is hard to tread.

Positioning the Historical-critical Method

References in this section come from: 1) Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2007. 2) Joseph Ratzinger. Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.

Barron does not have a developed paradigm for the role of the historical critical method in the work of Christian theology.  His book virtually equates the historical critical method with the historical-critical science of Classical Liberalism (35-47).  Thus, his alternative is “not to look under, around, or over [the text] in order to get the point.  Rather, the story itself, the narrative of Jesus as the Christ, in all of its peculiarity, surprise, and novelty is the point” (49).  He wants to be drawn into the narrative of the gospels so as to take on “its assumptions, characters, perspectives, typical questions, modes of behavior, theology” and thereby come to a new way of “thinking, moving, and deciding” (50).  He positions biblical interpretation (he does not describe such interpretation as historical-critical) as subordinate to doctrine. Doctrines rule out certain possibilities from biblical interpretation and “resolve certain puzzlements” (52-53).

After laying down certain doctrinal guides, Barron just jumps right into exegesis without tiptoeing around the sensitivities of modern historical-critical methods or even Christian hermeneutic textbooks.  A quick glance at the sources used in his first chapter of exegesis, “The Gatherer,” will reveal that he borrows only sparsely from historical critical sources.  He takes a common sense approach combined with his doctrinal guidelines and peppered with interesting tidbits (e.g. Aristotle insights on friendship, 76). He comes close to allowing for historical-critical insight when he analyzes certain Greek words or phrases (e.g. the “Greek formula” ego eimi, 88; the Greek term ousia that “undergirds” the word “property,” 77), but he does not belabor any of his interpretations as though he were up to the challenges of tedious scholarship.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, has an explicitly developed method that incorporates the historical critical method.  If we are to take history seriously, we must take methods that examine history seriously (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xv).  But the historical-critical method cannot speak to us in the present and excludes the possibility of supernatural phenomenon.  We must, therefore, go beyond this method to a “Christological hermeneutic” (Ratzinger, xix).  Once he has laid bare his twofold method, he allows for the “Christological hermeneutic” to so dominate that he goes into all sorts of spiritual meditations that seem completely unrelated to the authors historical intension (the authors who were inspired by God to write what they wrote).  His historical work and spiritual insights often seem to be joined by duck tape rather than flowing from an organic union (see last sentence of previous section).

Without a doubt, Ratzinger has a better approach than Barron when it comes to salvaging the insights of the historical-critical method.  He has a clearly defined twofold method, and although I have seen other writers work with a similar method in a more satisfying way, his method (as explained in the beginning of his book) is more promising than Barron’s more polemic approach.  It proves most fruitful in his hands when he grounds his main point in The God of Jesus Christ in themes widely attested as themes in the text he exegetes.  Personally, however, among those who have attempted to contribute to overcoming the pitfalls between historical-critical methods and theology, Levering has helped me the most.

It is better to think of the methodologies of Hurtado and Bauckham as complementary to the more theological/philosophical approaches of Ratzinger and Barron than as “the” alternative.  (Here I am thinking of their methods as excluding recourse to the supernatural, i.e. thematically secular-historical-critical.)  As a means for apologetics, such an approach may be an alternative vocation for a particular Christian, but it can never be an alternative theology for that Christian because it rules out theological conclusions.

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Matthew Levering. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008.

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Book Review: The God of Jesus Christ by Pope Benedict XVI

The following is a book review of Pope Benedict XVI’s book, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God (see below for bibliographic information).  For more reviews on Pope Benedict (previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before taking the office of papacy) click here.

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Ratzinger’s task in The God of Jesus Christ assumes that something is wrong with the state of theology—it is becoming more and more void of spiritual power that can “address man in his personal life” (9).  To remedy the situation and build “a bridge between theology and proclamation, between theology and piety,” Ratzinger wants to “transfer” the doctrine of the Trinity from a “theoretical proposition” about God to “spiritual knowledge” (9).  He also wants to do something similar with the Nicene affirmation that Jesus “came down from heaven” and “became a man” (9).

The prayer of Jesus plays a major role in Ratzinger’s attempt to build this bridge.  This is because Jesus’ prayer, as Ratzinger understands it, is the clearest indicator of the nature of Jesus’ sonship.  The reason Jesus is called “the Son” is because he remains dependent upon the power and love of the Father, and this dependence is his “highest dignity” (72).  That Jesus “came down from heaven” means that he simply received and relied upon the life the Father had prepared in advance for him (67).  Ratzinger uses the interpretation of Psalm 40 [39]: 5-7 found in the book of Hebrews to conclude that Jesus released his life and handed it back over to the Father—and this is what sonship is all about (67).  Being a Christian, then, means imitating this kind of forfeiting of our lives to God and receiving God’s presence to dwell in us (68).

The very meaning of being a Christian includes being, like Jesus, “God’s son”—that is, “becoming a child” (35).  In fact, “the very essence of what it is to be a man,” paradoxically, means “being a child” (71).  But what does this mean?  For Ratzinger, it means that we joyfully embrace the various ways in which we are dependent on others and in which our life is full of “advance gifts” (70, 36).  The very fabric of life is, in a sense, inherited and preconditioned.  For example, God does not consult us about whether we would prefer to be male or female, or whether we would prefer that there be more sexes than just two, or whether we would prefer to be given the gift of life—we simply burst into existence with features predetermined about ourselves, then remain completely dependent on the womb, breasts, and care of our mother (36).  Our language and gestures by which we express ourselves are predetermined (70).  Even “forms of thinking” are also “received” and “imprinted upon” the “human soul” (70-71).  Rather than rebel against these “advance gifts” in attempt to reject the way God made things to be in order to delude ourselves into thinking we are somehow “autonomous” and get to determine everything for ourselves, we should gratefully receive and be astonished at life as little children (73-74).

Jesus’ prayer characterizes his life in the gospels; especially in Luke, who makes the choosing of the disciples a “fruit” of Jesus’ prayer (80).  The story of Transfiguration in Luke happens while Jesus prays.  For Ratzinger, this means that the “inner foundation of the Resurrection is already present in the earthly Jesus” (81).  Ratzinger concludes:

Luke has raised the prayer of Jesus to the central Christological category from which he describes the mystery of the Son.  What Chalcedon expressed by means of a formula drawn from the sphere of Greek ontology is affirmed by Luke in an utterly personal category based on the historical experience of the earthly Jesus; in substantial terms, this corresponds completely to the formula of Chalcedon. (82)

This is also confirmed by the fact that Luke, according to Ratzinger, links the confession of faith with Jesus’ solitude with the Father—that is, those who were with Jesus could see that he spent much time alone in fellowship and prayer with the Father and therefore understood that he was “the Son” (82).  They understood that Jesus’ dialogue with the Father was what really “drove” Jesus’ existence (82).  Through Jesus’ resurrection, he admits “human existence” into this dialogue of love so that “we are in God” (84).

If Ratzinger’s exegesis is right, he has indeed built a bridge from theology to “spiritual knowledge” of piety.  That is, to the degree that Ratzinger’s understanding of sonship can be seen to be the very emphasis of the biblical language and picture of sonship, to this same degree Ratzinger has built a solid bridge.  His treatment of Luke’s account of the calling of the Twelve is not eccentric, but based on recognized themes in Luke: the motif of “the mountain” as a symbol for closeness to God, Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ reliance on the Father for his big decisions, when Jesus prays “something significant usually follows” (Bock, 538-40, 866).  The emphasis on both prayer and sonship in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration makes Ratzinger’s emphasis on Jesus’ dependence as part of the “essence of his sonship” seem exegetically justified (81).

Other aspects of Ratzinger’s exegesis are less convincing.  He appears to be reading too much into Luke’s statement that Jesus was “alone” yet “with” his disciples (82).  It seems more reasonable to agree with Bock’s suggestion that Luke’s mention of Jesus being “alone” simply means that he and his disciples were away from the larger crowds (Bock, 840).  It is debatable whether Jesus’ “seeing” the disciples while in prayer can be stretched to include all the conclusions Ratzinger draws: that the Church is “the” object of conversation between Jesus and the Father, that the Church is not just on Jesus’ mind and heart, but is actually “present” with Jesus while he is on the mountain in prayer, that Jesus “sees” the church in the Father, etc. (80).

Personal Response

One of Ratzinger’s theological preoccupations is to “rescue” theology or exegesis from being deprived of the kind of spiritual power it has the ability to unleash once informed by Christian faith.  In his Jesus of Nazareth and “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis” for example, he is trying to rescue exegesis from those who deprive it of its power to speak into the present by anti-supernatural assumptions (Jesus of Nazareth, xvi; “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 16), and here Ratzinger is trying to rescue aspects of theology that have lost their ability to “address man in his personal life” (9).  That is, he is trying to rescue what will otherwise be relatively abstract theology that does not have any immediately obvious relevance for piety.

I deeply sympathize with Ratzinger’s concern for Christians not to let biblical exegesis or theology become a mere academic or abstract enterprise.  Knowledge puffs up.  Ratzinger also has many genuine exegetical and theological insights worthy of consideration.  Unfortunately, I find his genuine insights clouded with the multiplication of ambiguities, imaginative exegesis, and vulnerable argumentation (Where did he come up with his argument that it is impossible for a “twofoldedness” to ever exist?  What does his explanation of this argument amount to? [35]).  In spite of this overall judgment, the key argument of the present book about Jesus’ sonship appears to be exegetically warranted and worthy of contemplation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Darrell L. Bock. Luke. Vol. 1 of 2. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1994.

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.

________. The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God. Translated by Brian McNeil.  San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2008.

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 REQUEST FOR AUTHENTIC EXEGESIS: RATZINGER’S PROPOSAL 

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?

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.  

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FOOTNOTES 

[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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