Neo-Patristic Exegesis

A call for a new approach to exegesis

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a programmatic article published originally in German in 1989, and subsequently in English and then in Italian, called for “a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma” in the exegesis of Sacred Scripture through self-criticism by exegetes of the “historical method” in use and by the employment of “a less arbitrary philosophy which offers a greater number of presuppositions favoring a true hearing of the text.” The Cardinal observed that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century “have virtually become academic dogmas,” owing especially to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose “basic methodological orientations determine even to this day the methodology and course of modern exegesis,” and he found it imperative at this juncture of time to challenge the fundamental ideas of their method. Bultmann the exegete, he said, “represents a background consensus of the scientific exegesis dominant today,” even though Bultmann was not so much a scientific as a systematic worker, whose exegetical conclusions “are not the result of historical findings, but emerge from a framework of systematic presuppositions.” Noting that, in the form-criticism of Bultmann and Dibelius, through the influence of Immanuel Kant, modern exegesis reduces history to philosophy, the Cardinal proposed some “basic elements for a new synthesis,” which will require “the attentive and critical commitment of a whole generation.” On the level of the integration of the biblical texts into their historical context, said the Cardinal, the time is ripe for a “radical new reflection on exegetical method, also in the sense that biblical exegesis must come to recognize its own history as part of what it is and to learn how the philosophical element influences the process of interpretation. And, on the level of their location “in the totality of their historical unfolding,” that is, of their total meaning, he said, the biblical texts “must be integrated into a theological vision in the strict sense, based upon the experience of Revelation.” To achieve this task he saw the need “to introduce into the discussion the great proposals of Patristic and medieval thought,” as well as reflection upon “the fundamental options of the Reformation and on the choices it involved in the history of interpretation.”

The four senses

The neo-Patristic approach is rooted in a radical and pervasive distinction between the literal and the spiritual sense of the inspired text and it proceeds by the use of an explicit framework of the traditional four senses, namely, the literal sense, the allegorical sense, the tropological, or moral, sense, and the anagogical, or eschatological, sense of the sacred text. The neo-Patristic method makes use of the insights of the Fathers of the Church, and of other early ecclesiastical writers, as well as the insights of medieval, modern, and contemporary exegetes and theologians, in the construction and use of a scientific framework of thought that is deemed adequate both on the level of faith and on the level of reason. The neo-Patristic approach arises from two general observations: a) the problems raised by historical-critical exegetes regarding the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, if resolved in a different mental framework, could occasion a positive development of Catholic exegesis; and b) the exegetical tradition of the Fathers of the Church, together with its elaboration in medieval and modern times, is the key to the synthesizing or rejecting of particular results of historical criticism. The neo-Patristic exegete finds material for his study in the historical-critical literature, and he finds the formality of his study in the Patristic literature, as expanded also into the commentaries of Catholic biblical scholars over the centuries, together with the input of contemporary neo-Patristic scholarship. The overall framework of the neo-Patristic approach is constructed according to the Patristic notion of the four senses of the inspired text of Sacred Scripture. The Fathers actually varied in their notion of the number and names of the senses of Sacred Scripture, and they often used the notion without speculating on this question. St. Augustine alludes to four senses of Sacred Scripture at the beginning of his De Genesi ad litteram, where he says: “In all the sacred books, we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given.” St. Thomas Aquinas greatly developed the theory of the four senses and speculated on their relation to one another, and, for this reason, he could be considered to be the founder of the neo-Patristic approach. His teaching serves as a starting point for a more differentiated exposition of the method, beginning from the first big distinction between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. For St. Thomas this distinction arises from the fact that the rightly understood meaning of the words themselves is embodied in the literal sense, while the fact that the things expressed by the words signify other things produces the spiritual sense. But the central thing signified by these prefigurements is Jesus Christ Himself, who, as the God-Man, is the central focus of the spiritual sense and the subject of an extended symbolism which is known as the Allegory of Christ and his Church.

[Msgr. John F. McCarthy]