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The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion"
| James Hitchcock
The impression that the Second Vatican Council marked a radical break with
the Catholic past is a cliché that dies hard. It is kept alive, ironically,
both by liberals who wish it were so, and by certain traditionalists with
an interest in minimizing, if not altogether discrediting, the Councils
Thus, if asked, most Catholics would probably say that the Council gave
wholesale approval to modern biblical scholarship and justified for Catholics
the "demythologizing" approach to the Bible that has long been
in use among liberal Protestants. Some Catholics even some bishops
never tire of insisting that "Catholics are not fundamentalists".
But to the degree that Catholics are not fundamentalists, in the sense of
accepting the historical truth of the Bible, the Council gave them little
encouragement. If liberals read the conciliar decree on Scripture, Dei Verbum, with complete
objectivity, they have to admit that it makes them uncomfortable.
The authority for modern interpretive methods (exegesis) appears
mainly in one passage (III, l2):
To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should
be given, among other things, to "literary forms". For truth
is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously
historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter
must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express
and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary
literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and
culture. (Saint Augustine) For the correct understanding of what the
sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary
and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed
at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed
at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
One of the great achievements of modern scholarship,
now trivialized to the point of caricature by Deconstructionism, has been
the realization that it cannot simply be assumed that the texts of the
past are immediately accessible to modern minds and that a certain effort
is necessary to retrieve authentic meanings. Obviously it is this crucial
scholarly insight that the Council endorsed.
But a committed practitioner of the "hermeneutic of suspicion"
in interpreting the Bible has to admit how very restrained this conciliar
endorsement is. Most significantly, it extends merely to the possibility
of modern misunderstanding -- the misconstrual of certain words, insensitivity
to the nuances of certain figures of speech, failure to recognize allusions
to other biblical passages -- not to the supposed errors of the evangelists
who wrote the texts.
The Jesus Seminar has taken to its farthest point
the implications of the dominant modern biblical scholarship, defiantly
claiming that much of what is found in the New Testament was fabricated
by the evangelists or is at least unreliable. Many Catholic exegetes practice
essentially the same hermeneutic (interpretive system) without being quite
so radical, and the more moderate among them sometimes engage in a kind
of sleight-of-hand, implying that the evangelists did not purposely fabricate
parts of their narratives but simply never intended their accounts to
be taken as historically accurate, something of which modern scholarship
has finally become aware. But this "moderate" position is untenable
and would be accepted neither by the members of the radical Jesus Seminar
nor by believing Christians.
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held,
and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical
character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what
Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their
eternal salvation.... The sacred authors ... told us the honest truth
More than forty years ago the early stirrings of "revisionist"
biblical scholarship in Catholic circles cautiously proposed that the
Nativity story was a "midrash" (interpretation, commentary)
not meant to be taken literally; and those same scholars implied that,
by conceding the merely legendary character of the "infancy narratives",
the historicity of the rest of the Gospel could be preserved. Later, the
"hermeneutic of suspicion" aimed precisely at the heart of the
Gospel -- the Resurrection account -- as it was bound to do. Standard
liberal biblical criticism speculates that most of the New Testament was
written in order to support various agendas in the early Church, a hypothesis
that necessarily implies that the authors were disseminating stories they
knew to be false or that fit their ideological presuppositions. In this
kind of scholarship it is impossible to acquit the evangelists of the
charge of conscious dishonesty.
By contrast Dei Verbum (V, l9) reminds the faithful that:
If a modern exegete wanted a textbook example of a "troglodyte"
approach to the Bible, he could scarcely cite anything better than Dei Verbum. Here the
reader finds, virtually taken for granted, that God is the true author of
the Scripture, human beings His mere agents; that the Scripture contains
"all saving truth"; that Scripture cannot be properly understood
except in the total context of Church teaching and under the authoritative
guidance of the hierarchy; that the Old Testament was "deliberately
so oriented that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming
of the Christ". Each of these affirmations is an allegedly "pre-conciliar"
belief, which, many Catholics have been taught, the Church has now discarded.
But apart from specific scholarly theories, there is a fundamental anomaly
at the root of much modern biblical scholarship, which is how it is possible
to place under a microscope, so to speak, what is affirmed to be the living
word of God. How can a text said to embody Gods own revelation to
His people, claimed as essential to ones salvation, acknowledged to
be infinitely beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend, be treated
simply as another literary genre?
In "proving" the divine authority of Scripture, the Second Vatican
Council (DV, I, l) cited the text of Scripture itself, a method of exegesis
that would be outrageous if applied to any other document. But if the Bible
is true, it is indeed self-validating and no amount of scholarly activity
could ever validate it in any other way.
(This article first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Catholic
Other IgnatiusInsight.com columns by Dr. Hitchcock:
Ideology: The Grilling of Judge Roberts
Court's Penumbra of Politics
Ratzinger: Man for the Job
Modern Culture; Asserting the Gospel
Bishops, Liberal Results
The Myth of
the Wall of Separation
The Church and
Theory of the Enlightened
Dr. James Hitchcock, (e-mail)
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary
Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press, in the Adoremus
Bulletin, and on the Women
for Faith and Family website. He is the author of several books, including
The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years
of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
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