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oOn the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission

Relationship between Magisterium and exegetes


I chose the topic of my report not only because it concerns the questions which rightly belong to a retrospective of the 100 years of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, but also because it enters, so to speak, into the problems of my own biography:  for more than half a century my personal theological journey has taken place within the particular sphere of this theme.

Two names appear in the decree of the Concistorial Congregation of 29 June 1912, De quibusdam commentariis non admittendis, which have crossed my own life. Friesing professor Karl Holzhey's Introduction to the Old Testament would in fact be condemned; he had died by the time I began my theological studies on the hill of the Cathedral of Friesing in January 1946, but colourful anecdotes about him still circulated. He must have been a rather proud and sensitive man.

The second name which appears is more familiar to me, that of Fritz Tillmann, the editor of a Commentary on the New Testament labelled as unacceptable. In this work, the author of the comment on the Synoptics was Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, a friend of Tillmann, at the time a qualified lecturer in Strasbourg. The decree of the Concistorial Congregation established that these comments expungenda omnino esse ab institutione clericorum. The Commentary, of which I found a forgotten copy when I was a student in the Minor Seminary of Traunstein, had to be banned and withdrawn from sale since, with regard to the Synoptic question, Maier sustained the so-called two-source theory, accepted today by almost everyone.

At the time, this also brought Tillmann's and Maier's scientific career to an end. Both, however, were given the option of changing theological disciplines.

Tillmann took advantage of this possibility and later became a top German moral theologian. Together with Th. Steinbüchel and Th. Müncker, he edited a manual of avant-garde moral theology, which addressed this important discipline in a new way and presented it according to the basic idea of the imitation of Christ.

Maier did not want to take advantage of the offer to change disciplines as he was, in fact, dedicated body and soul to work on the New Testament. So, he became a military chaplain and in this capacity took part in the First World War; following this he worked as a prison chaplain until 1924, when, with the nulla osta of the Archbishop of Breslau (today Wroclaw), Cardinal Bertram, in a by-then more relaxed climate, he was called to the chair of New Testament Studies at the Theological Department there. In 1945, when that Department was suppressed, he went to Munich with other colleagues, where he worked as a teacher.

He never quite got over the humiliation of 1912, notwithstanding the fact that he could now teach his subject practically without restrictions and was supported by the enthusiasm of his students, to whom he was able to transmit his passion for the New Testament and a correct interpretation of it. From time to time in his lessons, recollections of the past came up. I was especially impressed by a statement he made in 1948 or 1949. He said that by then, as a historian, he could freely follow his conscience, but that he had not yet arrived at that complete freedom of exegesis of which he had dreamed. He said, furthermore, that he probably would not live to see this but that he desired at least, like Moses on Mount Nebo, to be able to gaze upon the Promised Land of an exegesis freed from every control and conditioning of the Magisterium.

We note that on the soul of this gifted man, who led an exemplary priestly life founded on the faith of the Church, weighed not only that decree of the Concistorial Congregation, but also the various decrees of the Biblical Commission - on the Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch (1906), on the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909), on the authors and the composition of the Psalms (1910), on Mark and Luke (1912), on the Synoptic question (1912), and so forth - impeding his work as an exegete with fetters which he deemed to be undue.

The impression continued to persist that, due to those Magisterial decisions, Catholic exegetes were hindered from carrying out unrestricted scientific work, and that in this way Catholic exegesis, as opposed to Protestant, could never meet the standard of the times and its scientific seriousness was questioned, in part rightly, by the Protestants.

Naturally, the conviction that a rigorously historical work could authentically ensure the de facto objective data of history, or rather, that this was the only possible way to understand the biblical books which are, precisely, historical books in their true meaning, also had an influence. He took for granted the authenticity and the unequivocal nature of the historical method; the idea that philosophical presuppositions entered into play in this method and that reflection on the philosophical implications of the historical method could become necessary did not affect him, either.

For him, as for many of his colleagues, philosophy seemed a disturbing element, something which could only pollute the pure objectivity of the historical work. The hermeneutical question did not arise, that is, he did not ask himself to what extent the outlook of the questioner determines access to the text, making it necessary to clarify, above all, the correct way to ask and how best to purify one's own questioning. Precisely for this reason, Mount Nebo would surely have held some surprises for him which were completely beyond his horizon.

I would now like to attempt to ascend Mount Nebo with him, so to speak, to observe from that perspective the ground which we have covered in the last 50 years. It might be useful, in this regard, to recall the experience of Moses.

Chapter 34 of Deuteronomy describes how it was conceded to Moses on Mount Nebo to gaze upon the Promised Land, which he saw in its entirety. The look he was conceded was, so to speak, purely geographical, not historical. Nevertheless, one could say that chapter 28 of the same book presents a glance, not on geography, but on the future history in and with the land, and that this chapter offers a very different, much less consoling, perspective:  "And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.... And among these nations you shall find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot" (Dt 28: 64ff). What Moses saw in this interior vision could be summarized in this way:  freedom can destroy itself; when it loses its intrinsic criteria, it is self-destructive.

What could a historical glance of Nebo over the land of exegesis in the last 50 years have perceived? In the first place, many things that would have been consoling for Maier, the realization of his dream, so to speak.

Already in 1943 the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu introduced a new way of understanding the relation between the Magisterium and the scientific exegesis of the historical reading of the Bible.
Following this the 1960s represent the entrance into the Promised Land of exegetical freedom, to continue the metaphorical image.

First, we encounter the Biblical Commission's instruction of 21 April 1964 on the historical truth of the Gospels, and then, above all, the Conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum of 1965 on divine revelation, with which, in fact, a new chapter in the relation between the Magisterium and scientific exegesis is opened. There is no need to emphasize here the importance of this fundamental text. This primarily defines the concept of Revelation, which is not to be wholly identified with its written testimony which is the Bible, and thus opens the vast historical and theological prospect in which Biblical interpretation takes place, an interpretation that sees in the Scriptures not only human books, but the testimony of divine speech. It thus becomes possible to determine the concept of Tradition, which also goes beyond Scripture while having it as its centre, since Scripture is above all and by nature "tradition".

This leads to the third chapter of the Constitution, dedicated to the interpretation of Scripture; in this chapter, the absolute necessity of the historical method convincingly emerges as an indispensable part of the exegetical effort, but then the precisely theological dimension also appears, which - as has already been said - is essential, if that book is more than human words.

Let us continue our investigation from Mount Nebo: Maier, from his vantage point, could have especially rejoiced in what took place in June of 1971. With the motu proprio Sedula Cura, Paul VI completely restructured the Biblical Commission so that it was no longer an organ of the Magisterium, but a meeting place between the Magisterium and exegetes, a place of dialogue in which representatives of the Magisterium and qualified exegetes could meet to find together, so to speak, the intrinsic criteria which prevent freedom from self-destruction, thus elevating it to the level of true freedom. Maier could also have rejoiced in the fact that one of his best students, Rudolf Schnackenburg, became a member not of the Biblical Commission itself, but of the no less important International Theological Commission, so that he now found himself, as it were, almost a part of that Commission which had caused him so much worry.

We recall another important fact that, from our imaginary Nebo, might have appeared in the distance:  the 1993 document of the Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, in which the Magisterium no longer imposes norms on the exegetes from above, but they themselves are the ones who determine the criteria that indicate the way for a fitting interpretation of this special book, which, when seen only from the outside, constitutes fundamentally nothing other than a literary collection of writings whose composition extends over an entire millennium. Only the subject from whom this literature is born - the pilgrim people of God - makes this literary collection, with all of its variety and apparent contrasts, one single book.

This people knows, however, that it neither speaks nor acts by itself, but is indebted to the One who makes them a people:  the same living God who speaks to them through the authors of the individual books.

So did the dream come true? Have the second 50 years of the Biblical Commission cancelled and overridden what the first 50 years produced?

I would respond to the first question that the dream has become a reality and that it has also been corrected at the same time.

The mere objectivity of the historical method does not exist. It is simply impossible to completely exclude philosophy or hermeneutical foresight. This was already shown while Maier was still living, for instance, in Bultmann's "Comment on John", in which Heideggerian philosophy served not only to make present what historically was distant, so to speak, to transport the past to our today, but also as a bridge which carries the reader into the text.

Now, this attempt has failed, but it has become evident that the pure historical method - as in the case of secular literature as well - does not exist. It is certainly understandable that Catholic theologians, at the time in which the decisions of the Biblical Commission of that time impeded them from a pure application of the historical-critical method, looked with envy at the evangelical theologians who, in the meantime, with their most serious research, were able to present results and new findings on how this literature which we call the Bible was born and grew during the journey of the people of God.

With this, however, the fact that the opposite problem existed in Protestant theology was taken too little into consideration. This is clearly seen, for example, in the conference on the ecclesial responsibility of the student of theology, held in 1936 by Bultmann's great student, Heinrich Schlier, who later converted to Catholicism. At this time evangelical Christianity in Germany was involved in a battle for survival:  the encounter between the so-called German Christians (Deutsche Christen), who, subjecting Christianity to the ideology of National Socialism, distorted its roots, and the Confessed Church (Bekennende Kirche).

In this context Schlier addressed these words to students of theology: "...Reflect a moment on what is better:  that the Church, in a legitimate way and after careful reflection, remove from teaching a theologian of heterodox doctrine, or that the individual freely charges one or another teacher of heterodoxy and protects himself from him? It must not be thought that judging is eliminated when each is allowed to judge ad libitum. Here the liberal vision is consistent in affirming that no decision on the truth of a teaching can exist, that therefore every teaching has something of truth and that thus all teachings must be admitted in the Church. But we do not share this vision. This denies in fact that God truly made a decision among us...".

Those who recall that then a great number of the Protestant Theology Departments were almost exclusively in the hands of the German Christians, and that Schlier had to leave academic teaching for affirmations such as the one just cited, can become aware of the other side of this problematic as well.

We come thus to the second and conclusive question:  how should we evaluate, today, the first 50 years of the Biblical Commission? Was everything only a tragic conditioning, so to speak, of theological freedom, a collection of errors from which we had to free ourselves in the second 50 years of the Commission, or should we not consider this difficult process more articulately?
The fact that things are not as simple as they seemed in the first enthusiasm of the beginning of the Council, emerges perhaps already from what we have just said. It is true that, with the above-mentioned decisions, the Magisterium overly enlarged the area of certainties that the faith can guarantee; it is also true that with this, the credibility of the Magisterium was diminished and the space necessary for research and exegetical questions was excessively restricted.

But it remains likewise true that faith has a contribution to make with regard to the interpretation of Scripture, and that therefore the pastors are also called to offer correction when the particular nature of this book is lost sight of, and objectivity, which is pure in appearance only, conceals what the Sacred Scripture itself specifically has to offer. Laborious research has therefore been indispensable in order that the Bible has its just hermeneutic and historical-critical exegesis its proper place.

It seems to me that two levels of the problem in question, both then and now, can be distinguished.

On a first level, it must be asked how far the purely historical dimension of the Bible extends and where its specificity, which escapes mere historical reasoning, begins. A question within the historical method itself could also be formulated:  what can it in fact do, and what are its intrinsic limits? What other modes of understanding are necessary for a text of this type?

The laborious research to be undertaken can be compared, in a certain sense, to the effort required by the Galileo case. Until that moment it seemed that the geocentric vision of the world was connected in an inextricable way to what was revealed by the Bible; it seemed that those in favour of a heliocentric vision of the world demolished the core of Revelation. The relation between the external appearance and the true and proper message of the whole had to be thoroughly revised, and only slowly would criteria be able to be developed that would permit the placing of scientific reason and the specific message of the Bible in right relation.

Certainly, the contention can never be said to be completely resolved, since the faith testified by the Bible includes the material world as well and affirms something about it, about its origin and that of man in particular. To reduce all of reality as we meet it to pure material causes, to confine the Creator Spirit to the sphere of mere subjectivity, is irreconcilable with the fundamental message of the Bible. This involves, however, a debate on the very nature of true rationality; since, if a purely materialistic explanation of reality is presented as the only possible expression of reason, then reason itself is falsely understood.

A similar affirmation must be made with regard to history. At first it seemed indispensable for the authenticity of Scripture, and therefore for the faith founded upon it, that the Pentateuch be indisputably attributed to Moses or that the authors of the individual Gospels be truly those named by Tradition.

Here too, so to speak, it was necessary gradually to redefine the spheres; the fundamental relation between faith and history was rethought. A similar clarification was not undertaken since it could not be made from one day to the next. Here as well there will always be room for discussion. The opinion that faith as such knows absolutely nothing of historical facts and must leave all of this to historians is Gnosticism: this opinion disembodies the faith and reduces it to pure idea. The reality of events is necessary precisely because the faith is founded on the Bible. A God who cannot intervene in history and reveal Himself in it is not the God of the Bible. In this way the reality of the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the effective institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper, his bodily resurrection from the dead - this is the meaning of the empty tomb - are elements of the faith as such, which it can and must defend against an only presumably superior historical knowledge.

That Jesus - in all that is essential - was effectively who the Gospels reveal him to be to us is not mere historical conjecture, but a fact of faith. Objections which seek to convince us to the contrary are not the expression of an effective scientific knowledge, but are an arbitrary over-evaluation of the method.

What we have learned in the meantime, moreover, is that many questions in their particulars must remain open-ended and be entrusted to a conscious interpretation of their responsibilities.
This introduces the second level of the problem: it is not simply a question of making a list of historical elements indispensable to the faith. It is a question of seeing what reason can do, and why the faith can be reasonable and reason open to faith.

Meanwhile, not only those decisions of the Biblical Commission which had entered too much into the sphere of merely historical questions were corrected; we have also learned something new about the methods and limits of historical knowledge. Werner Heisenberg verified in the area of the natural sciences, with his "Unsicherheitsrelation", that our knowing never reflects only what is objective, but is always determined by the participation of the subject as well, by the perspective in which the questions are posed and by the capacity of perception. All this, naturally, is incomparably most true where man himself enters into play and where the mystery of God is made perceptible.
Faith and science, Magisterium and exegesis, therefore, are no longer opposed as worlds closed in on themselves. Faith itself is a way of knowing. Wanting to set it aside does not produce pure objectivity, but comprises a point of view which excludes a particular perspective while not wanting to take into account the accompanying conditions of the chosen point of view. If one takes into account, however, that the Sacred Scriptures come from God through a subject which lives continually - the pilgrim people of God - then it becomes clear rationally as well that this subject has something to say about the understanding of the book.

The Promised Land of freedom is more fascinating and multiformed than the exegete of 1948 could have imagined. The intrinsic conditions of freedom have become evident. It presupposes attentive listening, knowledge of the limits of the various paths, full seriousness of the ratio, and also a readiness to limit and surpass oneself in thinking and living with the subject, which the different writers of the Old and New Covenant guarantee us is a single work, the Sacred Scripture. We are profoundly grateful for the openings the Second Vatican Council has given us, as the fruit of a long effort of research.

Yet, neither do we lightly condemn the past, even if we see it as a necessary part of a process of knowing which, considering the greatness of the revealed Word and the limits of our abilities, continually places new challenges before us. But its beauty lies precisely in this.

And thus, at the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Biblical Commission, despite all the problems which have arisen during this length of time, we can still look, thankfully and hopefully, upon the path which lies ahead of us.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
and Dean of the College of Cardinals