Monday, November 15, 2010

Verbum Domini

Pope Benedict recently published a document on scripture, Verbum Domini. Eric Sammons has a post where he goes into the two dangers the pope sees in interpreting scripture. The historical-critical method and the fundamentalist method.
Historical-criticism is the dominant method of biblical interpretation in the academic world. Historical-critics look at the Bible as simply a human document and study it as such. They want to answer questions such as: “Who wrote this?” “When was it written?” “What is the history of its development?” “How was the text handed on through the centuries?” They are not concerned with topics such as inspiration or inerrancy, nor do they look at how one’s life might be impacted by reading the Bible. To historical-critics, biblical interpretation is a purely scientific affair that attempts to uncover the origins of the biblical text. Anything beyond that is seen as superfluous. In the academic world, whether Protestant or Catholic or secular, this is almost the only biblical interpretation that exists.
Fundamentalism is a reaction to historical-criticism that became widespread in the early 20th century and is most commonly found among conservative Protestants. It is the viewpoint that takes every word completely literally and at face-value. For example, a fundamentalist will count the years noted in Genesis and then determine how old the earth is. Fundamentalism grew because many faithful Christians believed that the historical-critical method denied the divine authorship of the Bible and they wanted to recover that.
This is a common theme for Pope Benedict. In so many areas he sees people viewing God as a creation of man and therefore all alleged divine revelation as merely wise human insights. That makes them ideas modern man may discard if they believe they have better ideas. Then there is the reaction of those who say certain ideas are fundamental to the faith and must be assented to regardless of what modern man deems to be wise or moral. The one group uses reason to destroy faith. The other group uses faith to destroy reason. So it is no surprise the pope sees these same two schools of thought in the area of biblical exegesis as well.

Of course the truth is even more amazing than either side dares dream. It is not that God said it and that settles it. It is that God continues to speak. When our modern reasoning contradicts our doctrine we don't have to pick one or the other. We can allow God to speak to the matter through His church. This does not mean leaving scripture behind. God's modern guidance is never going to contradict God's ancient revelation. It is also never going to contradict what we know through scientific and historical analysis. Unless, of course, we have made an error in interpreting that data or those texts.

Fundamentalism tries to save scripture from contradictory human opinions by declaring one opinion to be right. It is a noble effort. They know in their hearts they need infallibility. So they assume they must have it. They are right. God would not leave them orphans. But their method of declaring doctrines infallible assumes they are orphans. It assumes the Christians I respect are the ones that need to get together and define what the fundamentals of the faith are. That makes it pretty easy. I can rig the process to insure the answers I get will be to my liking. But God's true word is not that safe and predictable.

We all learn about the 3 legged stool where scripture, tradition, and the magisterium support each other and hold up the church. But you really see that here. The simplistic view of scripture just does not work. You need to view scripture as an historical piece of literature. So the historical-critical method is not wrong. It is just incomplete. But if you allow for all that complexity you lose clarity and strength. Not if you have tradition and the magisterium as a guide. Not if our goal is to deepen our understanding of the deposit of faith rather than to find a reason to doubt the faith.

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