Monday, April 25, 2005

Ratzinger Biblical Interpretation

These are excerpts from an article that former Cradinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote on the effects of modern biblical hermeneutics. I found it appropriate to start my posts with this since it deals with the fundamental problem fo discerning our First Principles of belief when it comes to Scriptural exegesis. How do we properly interpret the bible and when do we go to far in our modern dissecting of the text. This is what Ratzinger addresses quite eloquently:

"Within that newfound freedom of thought into which the Enlightenment had launched headlong, dogma or church doctrine appeared as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself. But freed from this impertinent presupposition, and equipped with a methodology which promised strict objectivity, it seemed that we were finally going to be able to hear again the clear and unmistakable voice of the original message of Jesus. Indeed, what had been long forgotten was to be brought into the open once more: the polyphony of history could be heard again, rising from behind the monotone of traditional interpretations. As the human element in sacred history became more and more visible, the hand of God, too, seemed larger and closer.
Gradually, however, the picture became more and more confused. The various theories increased and multiplied and separated one from the other and became a veritable fence which blocked access to the Bible for all the uninitiated. Those who were initiated were no longer reading the Bible anyway, but were dissecting it into the various parts from which it had to have been composed. The methodology itself seems to require such a radical approach: it cannot stand still when it "scents" the operation of man in sacred history. It must try to remove all the irrational residue and clarify everything. Faith itself is not a component of this method. Nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events. But since God and divine action permeate the entire biblical account of history, one is obliged to begin with a complicated anatomy of the scriptural word. On one hand there is the attempt to unravel the various threads (of the narrative) so that in the end one holds in one's hands what is the "really historical," which means the purely human element in events. On the other hand, one has to try to show how it happened that the idea of God became interwoven through it all. And so it is that another "real" history is to be fashioned in place of the one given. Underneath the existing sources — that is to say, the biblical books themselves — we are supposed to find more original sources, which in turn become the criteria for interpretation. No one should really be surprised that this procedure leads to the sprouting of ever more numerous hypotheses until finally they turn into a jungle of contradictions. In the end, one no longer learns what the text says, but what it should have said, and by which component parts this can be traced back through the text."

"But how is it possible to come to an understanding which on one hand is not based on some arbitrary choice of particular aspects, but on the other hand allows me to hear the message of the text and not something coming from my own self? Once the methodology has picked history to death by its dissection, who can reawaken it so that it can live and speak to me? Let me put it another way: if "hermeneutics" is ever to become convincing, the inner harmony between historical analysis and hermeneutical synthesis must be first found. "

"There should be no particular need to demonstrate that on the one hand it is useless to take refuge in an allegedly pure, literal understanding of the Bible. On the other hand, a merely positivistic and rigid ecclesiasticism would not do either. Just to challenge individual theories, especially the more daring and dubious ones, is likewise insufficient. Likewise dissatisfying is the middle-ground position of trying to pick out in each case as soon as possible the answers from modern exegesis which are more in keeping with tradition. Such foresight may sometimes prove profitable, but it does not grasp the problem at its root and in fact remains somewhat arbitrary if it cannot make its own arguments intelligible. In order to arrive at a real solution, we must get beyond disputes over details and press on to the foundations. What we need might be called a criticism of criticism. By this I mean not some exterior analysis, but a criticism based on the inherent potential of all critical thought to analyze itself. "

"In the midst of the theological, methodological debate of his day, Gregory of Nyssa called upon the rationalist Eunomius not to confuse theology with the science of nature. (Theologein is not physiologein.) [23] "The mystery of theology is one thing," he said, "the scientific investigation of nature is quite another." One cannot then "encompass the unembraceable nature of God in the palm of a child's hand." Gregory was here alluding to one of the famous sayings of Zeno: "The open hand is perception, the clapping hand is the agreement of the intellect, the hand fully closed upon something is the recording of judgment, the one hand clasped by the other is systematic science. "

"Along the same lines, I would like to express the following hopes:
a) The time seems to have arrived for a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method. Scientific exegesis must recognize the philosophic element present in a great number of its ground rules, and it must then reconsider the results which are based on these rules.
b) Exegesis can no longer be studied in a unilinear, synchronic fashion, as is the case with scientific findings which do not depend upon their history, but only upon the precision of their data. Exegesis must recognize itself as an historical discipline. Its history belongs to itself. In a critical arrangement of its respective positions within the totality of its own history, it will be able, on one hand, to recognize the relativity of its own judgments (where, for example, errors may have crept in). On the other hand, it will be in a better position to achieve an insight into our real, if always imperfect, comprehension of the biblical word.
c) Philological and scientific literary methods are and will remain critically important for a proper exegesis. But for their actual application to the work of criticism — just as for an examination of their claims — an understanding of the philosophic implications of the interpretative process is required. The self-critical study of its own history must also imply an examination of the essential philosophic alternatives for human thought. Thus, it is not sufficient to scan simply the last one hundred and fifty years. The great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion. It is equally indispensable to reflect on the fundamental judgments made by the Reformers and the critical importance they have had in the history of exegesis.
d) What we need now are not new hypotheses on the Sitz im Leben, on possible sources or on the subsequent process of handing down the material. What we do need is a critical look at the exegetical landscape we now have, so that we may return to the text and distinguish between those hypotheses which are helpful and those which are not. Only under these conditions can a new and fruitful collaboration between exegesis and systematic theology begin. And only in this way will exegesis be of real help in understanding the Bible.
e) Finally, the exegete must realize that he, does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside history and the Church. Such a presumed immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends. The first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible as a book. In so doing, it has already chosen a place for itself which does not simply follow from the study of literature. It has identified this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and this history as the proper space for coming to understanding. If it wishes to be theology, it must take a further step. It must recognize that the faith of the Church is that form of "sympathia" without which the Bible remains a closed book. It must come to acknowledge this faith as a hermeneutic, the space for understanding, which does not do dogmatic violence to the Bible, but precisely allows the solitary possibility for the Bible to be itself. "

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