On Scripture, the Literal Sense and the Historical Critical Method

Last week, Cardinal Martini died. He was praised and lauded by many (from the Pope down) for his great contribution to the life of the Church as a biblical scholar, but his other reason for being a cause celebre – his readiness to speak his mind on issues even when his mind did not entirely conform to the dictum sentire cum ecclesia – was (at least by officials in the Church) completely ignored. Sandro Magister has an interesting column on this phenomenon.

Was there a connection between Cardinal Martini’s focus on biblical scholarship and his avant garde views on faith and morals? It’s tempting to consider the possibility. Today, via a discussion on the JCMA community email list, I was made aware of a new(ish) publication by one Dr Bob Crotty, one time a Passionist priest and Seminary lecturer. Crotty left the priesthood after being charged with (but exhonerated due to the lack of evidence) heresy in Melbourne under Archbishop Knox in 1970, but he still plies his life long trade as a biblical scholar. The book is called “Three Revolutions”, and is extensively reviewed here on Catholica. The “Three revolutions” in Dr Crotty’s life as a biblical scholar were the introduction of the historical-critical approach, the methodology of reading the Bible as Literature, and finally his study of anthropology and sociology which led him to see Judaism and Christianity as simply “religions amongst other religions; their sacred writings were seen as sacred writings alongside others”. All this apparently “forced him to rethink the history of Israel, the relevance of the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism itself, …the history of Jesus, the relevance of the Christian Scriptures and Christianity.”

It is interesting also to read the speech made by Dr Bernadette Kiley (the prioress at the Dominican convent in Adelaide) at the launch of the book here on the publisher’s website. She says:

Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I consider that in Robert’s decision to leave both the priesthood and the church, that church lost a biblical scholar almost without peer in this country at that time. And it had only itself to blame. Its leadership failed to understand where contemporary biblical scholarship should’ve been taking the church and it failed in that most basic courtesy – the invitation to dialogue and conversation.

Well, that’s as may be. But perhaps Crotty himself could take some responsibility for his own faith decisions. I don’t think there is any great secret that he knows about the Bible that I haven’t come across, and I am still a member of the Church, a believer in Jesus Christ and a teacher of Sacred Scripture. They haven’t tried me for heresy (yet). There are some quotations in the review in Catholica, such as this:

Perhaps someone in the early Christian community had invented the idea of a final meal between Jesus and his close disciples on the event of his death. The invention would have served to explain the Christian meaning of Jesus’s death. By the time of Paul, this construction could already have been accepted as an actual event… I felt that I had lost my moorings and that my life in a religious setting had very little meaning…if the Last Supper could be put aside, I could hold virtually nothing in the Jesus story as historically sound and inviolable. Was this historical vacuum sufficient to base one’s life on? Did an appreciation of the Bible as Literature give a firm enough foundation for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Catholic Church?

No, probably not, one would think. (As an aside, I have always been convinced that the Resurrection is the real ‘historical’ anchor of the New Testament – interesting that young Crotty thought it was the Lord’s Supper). Still, I haven’t read the book. I am not quite sure whether I want to try to fit it into my busy reading schedule – there is so much else that I have sitting on my shelf that I actually need to read. But perhaps I need to read this book too, just to get an inside feel for the way in which Dr Crotty’s rise in scripture scholarship traced an opposite trajectory to his ability to hold to the Christian faith. For myself, I have always found that the more I have learned about the Scriptures, and the more I have dug deeply into the Scriptures, the more my faith has grown. That’s been my experience with my parishioners and students too. How is it that the effect of biblical study was so startlingly different for Dr Crotty?

Sister Kiley, in her book-launch speech, says:

Ironically, in The Three Revolutions, Robert states that as a young scholar and priest he firmly believed that the future flourishing of the church depended on its people(including its leadership) being able to understand and use the tools of contemporary biblical scholarship. That hope was not realised in Robert’s time as Catholic priest, and it remains to this day an unfulfilled dream of many a Catholic biblical scholar and teacher.

In recent times, I have encountered just this complaint from two other prominent Australian Catholic biblical scholars (both faithful priests, I might add), both bewailing the fact that in the years since Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 and Dei Verbum in 1965, little “progress” has been made in raising the bar of what they regard as “scriptural literacy” among lay Catholics. The first instance was Prof. Frank Moloney during the course I did with him at ACU earlier this year. The second I have just discovered (while googling “Bob Crotty”) in an essay written by Fr Brendan Byrne in Compass almost a decade ago.

Fr Byrne’s essay is worth reading in its entirety. He names Bob Crotty in his essay, speaks of him as one of the “earlier” generation of biblical scholars (yes, that’s right, earlier than Fr Byrne) and speaks tangentially of Crotty’s heresy trial (and trials), but most importantly, he gives a good run down on the fate of Catholic Biblical scholarship in Australia and in the Roman Curia since 1948/1965. Having been raised a Lutheran and being much to young in any case to have experienced it, I have no first hand knowledge of this history. It is interesting also to note his reference to a change in attitude during John Paul II’s pontificate and under the fellow who was (in 2003) both the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Biblical Society and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This last personage is not named in Byrne’s account, but we all know who he is. And of course, there was no way at the time of writing his piece that Byrne could have known who he would be just two short years later…

Byrne’s essay reads almost like a somewhat premature eulogy for the historical-critical method, the method which Crotty, in his book, describes as the “first” of the biblical studies “revolutions” that led him away from his regard for the Scriptures as an authoritative text for matters of faith. Byrne makes two striking comments.

He makes the first comment in relation to the production of the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission document “The Interpretation of the bible in the Church” composed during the time he was a member of the Commission. He says that the members of the Commission were successful in securing the central place for the historical-critical method in the document. He goes on:

At one stage, too, it had more or less been agreed upon to omit the virtually compulsory salute in church documents on Scripture to the ‘treasure-house’ of Patristic interpretation. Then, not without some encouragement from the Cardinal President, back came a ‘patristic paragraph’ (III, B, 2).

This is related almost as if it were a disaster! But then comes Byrne’s second odd comment:

The handling of scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) is simply disgraceful and in many respects regresses not merely behind Vatican II but Divino Affante Spiritu itself.

He explains this comment a little in a footnote:

While the Catechism’s express treatment of the place of Scripture in the deposit of faith (§§101-33) largely derives from Vatican II, Dei Verbum, the actual citation of texts throughout the document reverts to the old ‘proof-texting’ approach, neglectful of context, variety of literary form and genre (especially apocalyptic in regard to eschatological statements); see esp. the teaching on Hell (§§ 1033-35). Most notorious perhaps is the section on Original Sin (§390, where the Tridentine expression of the doctrine is reiterated with scant regard to exegesis of Genesis 1-3 and Rom 5:12-21 that has been mainstream for generations. The sustained presentation of the life of Christ (§§1351-1411) reflects a similar exegetical naivety in regard to the Gospels.

Well, one could say, it is, after all, a catechism, and that is what catechisms do, but I wonder if the two comments are not related in some way? One thing that any casual reader of the Catechism will notice is that it is heavily laced not just with Scripture texts (which you could say are used in a “proof-text” manner – but this is only a problem if you think it is a problem), but also with Patristic texts supporting the Scriptural citations. It has been often noted that the Catechism has single-handedly revived the ancient approach to Scriptural interpretation by including in its explanation of Scriptural hermeneutics the “four-fold sense” approach: Literal, Allegorical, Moral and Anagogical senses (cf. paragraphs 115-119). Interestingly, Sister Kiley takes a direct swipe at the allegorical sense in her speech at the launch of “Three Revolutions”. Is Fr Byrne’s real anxiety the fact that the Catechism reflects a very Patristic way of reading scripture, rather than the modern academic reading of Scripture?

If so, we are right back where Bob Crotty’s “Three Revolutions” takes us – the radical disjuncture between the way in which Scripture is read as a religious text in the community of the Church and the way in which Scripture is read as simply another text from the ancient world in the academic community. It is interesting that in his essay, Fr Byrne does speak of the “masters of the historical-critical approach and the relentless pursuit of the literal sense: to determine as accurately as possible what the text meant in its historical context”. Thus, the “literal sense” in terms of its historical meaning became all pervasive, and hence, as Fr Bryne points out, we developed scripture scholars who are experts in what the text meant, but not what the text means. It is the latter that is crucial for the pastoral and homiletical life of the scriptures in the Church. Fr Byrne notes that it is beyond all reasonable hope and expectation that the majority of the people in the pews will ever have enough education to grasp the “literal sense” in this sense, and hence the difficulty historical-critical scholars experience in explaining the “meaning of scripture” to the masses.

Now then, putting all this together, it brings back to my mind a recent conversation I had with my Lutheran friend, Pastor Fraser Pearce about the excellent (and oft referenced on these pages) book by James Kugel “How to read the Bible”. In this book, Kugel’s conclusion is precisely that there appears no way of marrying the ancient Rabbinical and Patristic reading (both used the same four-sense approach of hermeneutics) and the modern academic historical-critical approach. While recognising that in this day and age, one really cannot ignore the developments of the various critical methods of reading the Bible, his conclusion is that the latter approach ultimately makes it impossible to continue to regard the bible as Sacred Scripture. Like the two ways of describing the nature of light – pulses and waves – the two are mutually exclusive (my analogy, not his).

In other words, James Kugel reaches the same conclusion as Bob Crotty – yet without losing his orthodox Jewish faith. Perhaps because he opts to continue reading the Jewish Scriptures in the tradition of the Rabbis, even though he is completely comfortable within the world of academic biblical scholarship. But Crotty’s and Kugel’s conclusion is not, I hasten to add, shared by Fr Byrne, Fr Moloney, Cardinal Martini and – for that matter – Pope Benedict himself. These all appear to think that the historical critical method remains a more or less important tool for understanding the first sense, ie. the literal sense, of the bible. Pope Benedict of course encourages us to go further, to go on to the other senses, but nevertheless he does regards the historical critical methods to be of positive – if limited – benifit to the ecclesial reading of Scripture.

So who is right? Well, I can’t rightly say. I have myself benefited from the various types of critical approaches to the Scriptures – historical, literary, canonical, socio-rhetorical etc etc. I have learned one heck of a lot from scholars using these methods. But I am also convinced that Kugel and Crotty present us with a problem that we need to take much more seriously than we currently do. We cannot go on simply assuming that, because they are so clever and scholarly, the various critical methods must be entirely “a good thing” for Catholic biblical scholarship, especially if we are to follow the dictum of the Second Vatican Council to guide us: “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” [DV 12# 3].

Maybe what has enabled me to hold the paradox together is precisely the conviction that the Sacred Scriptures are the Spirit inspired Word of God despite all their odd origins and chequered history. Here I must confess that I have been aided by my fundamentally Lutheran spirituality of the Incarnation. Luther always revelled in the paradox that the Infinite God could be encompassed by the womb of Mary, the manger and the rags that made up his swaddling clothes. Finitum capax infinitum, as the old saying went (as opposed to the Calvinist non capax). If the Divine can be so identified with the very ordinary stuff of this world in the Incarnation, I have no difficulty receiving the ancient Scriptures contained in our Christian bible as the very Word of God.

As a kind of footnote, I will just add that I have been highly intrigued to read an essay by Scott Hahn and John Kincaid in a new volume (to which Adam Cooper has also contributed – and HT to him for recommending it) called “Reading Romans with St Thomas Aquinas”. The essay concerns the way in which Aquinas simply assumes that there can be more than one “literal sense” of the text. As long as the sense derived is “true”, and as long as it is supported by the grammar of the text itself, it mattered not to Aquinas what the original author intended and even less that the multiple literal senses might appear contradictory. Hahn and Kincaid demonstrate this with regard to no less a text than Romans 1:16 and the infamous phrase “the righteousness of God”. They also show how this is not unlike the double reading that James Dunn developed of the same passage, although Dunn was coming at the problem from quite a different direction. There may be hope yet…

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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3 Responses to On Scripture, the Literal Sense and the Historical Critical Method

  1. Joshua says:

    From Scripture scholars who do not believe in the Faith once delivered to the Saints, Good Lord, deliver us.

  2. Bob says:

    I’ve thought for a while now that scripture scholarship is a problem if you make it a problem. For one thing, it would be problematic if you thought each person, using a given method, gave you some sort of direct access to the Truth as opposed to one interesting, and intelligent, possible reading of the text. All of this depends on how you read “the literal sense.” For instance which compiler of the Biblical text are we supposed to take as producing the literal sense? To what extent is the role of the canonizing community to be taken into account? Secondly, and relatedly, there is no way of getting round the fact that one cannot interpret the text as it is, independent of any commitment of faith/community: Sola Scriptura might be nice enough rhetoric, but – barring direct divine illumination (methodologically illicit in terms of secular academia, and even if it were not, it would still leave unanswered the question of how you would legitimate a particular interpretation) – impossible. I would tend, therefore, to agree with you (and Luther), and put it perhaps slightly more strongly: Either we receive the scriptures as the inspired word of God mediated through a particular historical community gathered around a particular set of doctrinal affirmations, or we are left with a set of puzzling texts with any number of possible readings and references, but with no final meaning. This doesn’t mean we can’t critique or reject a certain accepted understanding of scripture (I couldn’t, for instance, imagine that a strict historical reading of Joshua would be coherent and consistent with everything else we know), not only grammatically, but in terms of the results of some of the other sciences, but it does – I think – mean that such criticism is always bounded by the Church and her creed. Augustine was fundamentally right. We receive the Bible from the Church, and not the other way round, and we believe in order to understand and only in a second step move from understanding to belief.

    In terms of Patristic interpretation, a lot of people – it seems to me – are working with an outdated model of what that was like, which has been challenged, for instance, in Frances Young’s Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture.

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