Online Edition – November 2005
Vol. XI, No. 8
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the “Hermeneutic of Suspicion”
by 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 Council’s authority.
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.
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:
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 about Jesus.
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 God’s own revelation to His people, claimed as essential to one’s 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.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press, and can be read online at www.wf-f.org/J-Hitchcock-col.html.
Dr. Hitchcock’s two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, was released by Princeton University Press in September 2004.
This article first appeared in Dossier magazine in 2000.