Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Of the Historical Critical Method and the Catholic Church (Pt. 1 of 2)

When you hear the words "historical-critical method" in reference to Biblical exegesis what is the first thing that runs through your mind? Maybe images of Hans K√ľng, Rowan Williams, or some (usually aged) Catholic priest explaining how Jesus' "real miracle" in feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and some fish (cf. Matt 14:13-21) was to "get everyone to share?" If so, you're not alone, but you also are not "sentire cum ecclesia" (thinking with the Church). As many Catholics associate the historical-critcal method with heresy, I thought I'd share a few words from our recent Holy Fathers on the matter.

St. John Paul the Great on the historical-critical method and it's role in the life of the Church said,
Studying the human circumstances of the word of God should be pursued with ever renewed interest.1 
These "human circumstances" are exactly what the historical-critical method seeks to study. However, the great pontiff goes on to say,
Nevertheless, this study is not enough....Catholic exegesis must be careful not to limit itself to the human aspects of the biblical texts. First and foremost, it must help the Christian people more clearly perceive the word of God in these texts so that they can better accept them in order to live in full communion with God.... He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.2

Pope Benedict XVI, picking up where his saintly predecessor left off pointed out,
the historical-critical method - specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith - is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is... the foundation on which (Biblical Faith) stands... If we push history aside, Christian faith as such disappears and is recast as some other religion. So if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method - indeed, faith itself demands this....The historical-critical method... is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretive task3
And before anyone jumps in with "that's just a post-Vatican II weakening of the Faith," let's listen to one more pontiff on the subject, Pius XII, who (last I checked), was firmly "pre-Vatican II,"

What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time... the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history... and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use.... The investigation, carried out, on this point, during the past forty or fifty years with greater care and diligence than ever before, has more clearly shown what forms of expression were used in those far off times4
Why then, with so much magisterial support behind the historical-critical method (always with the caveat that it is important to not reduce all Biblical exegesis to this one method), do many Catholics find this method distasteful, indeed even a frequent route into the errors of modernism (which St. Pope Pius X eloquently called "the synthesis of all heresies5")?

The answer to this is eloquently provided by our Pope Emeritus and we will look at his answer tomorrow. Stay tuned.

1. Pope St. John Paul II, discourse on April 23, 1993, no 9
2. ibid
3. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Foreward, xv-xvi
4. Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu , 35
5. Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 39

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