The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical Critical Method

Written by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.

(Paulist Press, 2008)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


Fitzmyer is one of the giants of Catholic biblical research in second half of the 20th Century, and is known most widely for his contributions to the Anchor Bible Commentaries and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. One might say that he has sat in a middle field between the more conservative writers, some of whom, for instance, appeared in the book I reviewed last time, Opening up the Scriptures, and his not-quite-as-careful collaborator in the new Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond Brown. This middle position is what makes Interpretation of Scripture an important, challenging read.

I would not say that Opening up the Scriptures sugar-coated the essential problem of ‘scientifically approaching’ the Scriptures. Its general focus was constructive: let’s define the Catholic view and let’s do the kind of exegesis that incorporates these disparate methodologies. This book, on the other hand, wants to spend a little more time stating the problem, emphasising its intractability and identifying the sources of resistance to historical criticism in the Church. In this regard, it perfectly complements Opening up the Scriptures.

This is a collection of essays that were gathered up from Fitzmyer’s vast number of writings composed over a great number of years, and they are specifically focused on the problem of the historical critical method in Catholic scholarship. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a defense of the method. But it is much else besides, as I have stated above. Most of this book is thoughtful and challenging, even though I would disagree with some of it. It provides an excellent précis of the ‘problem’ itself as well as a good account of all the key concepts.

I found the fourth chapter a lucid account of the introduction of scientific principles into the Church’s study of biblical revelation. Chapter 6 provides a useful analysis of the ‘spiritual sense,’ which we have discussed in relation to De Lubac’s great study, by setting it within the larger problem of authorial intention and by comparing it to the modern sensus plenior, ‘the fuller sense.’ But in the end, I cannot agree with the begrudging, minimalized role he affords it. Fitzmyer is unwilling to see the Bible as a mystical text in the full sense of the word, i.e. to accept that meaning can leave historical context behind. It is one thing to say that the historian as a historian cannot access this meaning, another thing to say that it therefore does not exist. Our essential disagreement lies in the fact that he would say that every meaning must be consonant with the literal sense that is itself knowable to historians, at least in theory, while I would not be willing to confine it in this way. Various texts were truly prophetic, that is to say that they made no sense to the prophet’s contemporaries, and could not, because they were given to these people, but to us or to some people in the future.

The final essay on Raymond Brown was a touching tribute to a friend, but it could have been so very much more: Fitzmyer might have offered an explanation for why Brown’s controversial positions were worthy of consideration despite the merciless criticism of his enemies. That would have been a sensible tact for a book dedicated to defending the historical critical method.

These criticisms aside, it is a good book, a concise account of the theoretical issues at stake. Of course, it would be a challenging read for someone totally unacquainted with the field, and therefore perhaps not your best place to start.

Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation

Edited by José Granados, Carlos Granados and Luis Sánchez-Navarro

(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


In keeping with our reviews of books on Scripture, here is a short series of essays on pivotal topics surrounding the Church’s appropriation of the Bible in the contemporary setting. The subtitle references the Pope Emeritus, though his writings constitute only roughly 40 of the 148 pages. Nevertheless, all of the essays are excellent and help towards grasping some of the issues faced by Catholic Bible-readers today. They are neither the most difficult nor the easiest essays.

Of course, the central problem that biblical study needs to deal with today consists in correlating the ‘scientific’ approach with the ‘faith’ approach. How can opposed methodologies produce complementary results? If I look at the Bible as a book written by men, do I not find one set of things, and if by God, another? Of course you would, but who is right? In truth, only one can be right, but what do we mean by right? This is where scholars will talk about the intention of the author: what did the author intend to say by his words? Who is the author – God or some man or men who wrote long ago, or somehow both? What would Jeremiah and Ezekiel have said about the destruction of Israel? Who destroyed it? They answered that it was both God and Nebuchadnezzar II, but that the more significant fact was that it was from God. Nevertheless, one might profit from studying the life and times of Nebuchadnezzar, even profit spiritually, if such study brings the biblical realities into life in one’s mind. But what if the historians start to tell us that the history could not have happened in the manner portrayed by the Bible? Augustine said that if a literal reading is impossible, something else must be behind it – a spiritual, mystical meaning. And yet, miracles do not render a story impossible for the theologian as they must for the historian, it seems.

There are a million ways to express this basic problem. Opening up the Scriptures takes this problem seriously, employs some of the standard insights of Ratzinger in its consideration, and those of a few other scholars.

But this is a distinctly Catholic book. The Catholic version of the above problem, which is itself a general Judaeo-Christian theological problem, needs to throw into the mix that weighty word dogma. Unlike other Christians, for instance, Catholics professedly do not read the Bible on its own (although it is a conceit that anyone could actually do this), but seek to understand it in light of the Tradition of the Faith, the ongoing great, multi-faceted, rich organic Faith, that lives today as powerful as it lived two-thousand years ago. In other words, for us, it is not a dead faith, something back upon which we look with piety. It is not caught up in an artifact of a previous time which we seek to remember most accurately. We do not seek to conform to an ancient worldview, but to God who is ever-alive. When I reviewed Wills’ Why Priests? in the first printed edition of the Catholic Review of Books, I wondered why the author found it necessary to juxtapose the contemporary Catholic view of the priesthood with that of Ancient Israel. That is not a Catholic concern. We don’t believe our priesthood is meant to be like theirs. We believe it is meant to be like Jesus’, who was not a priest of Ancient Israel. Catholics are always assailed with comparisons to the Early Church and to Ancient Israel. The Protestants used to do this until they realized we are far more like the Ancient Church than they are. Now they don’t do it anymore. Now our secular critics do it, but again, not realizing that we do not intend to be an historical re-enactment society.

Our Faith grows and develops, hence the title of Bl. Newman’s great work. I said it grows and develops; I did not say it changes. This is the sort of tension that one must bear in mind when he reads a book like Opening up the Scriptures. What changes and what must remain the same? For my part, as you know by now, I love the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine. I am really enjoying St. Gregory the Great’s Homilies on Ezekiel right now, which I will review in time. But, as a Catholic, I am fully prepared to dissent from many of their particular points of interpretation, though not from their essential methodologies or their understanding of the Faith in general. The Catholic Church is ever the same oak tree; it just happens to be over a thousand years older now than when they knew it. Thus, the essays in this book ponder very well the requirements of the Catholic dogmatic tradition. An essay by Potterie looks at the basic question of methodology. One by Beauchamp examines some of the pastoral or sociological issues. Klemens Stock presents a very structured consideration of “Christ in Contemporary Exegesis.” I have always said that Ratzinger articulated something definitive on this question. He didn’t invent the solution; he just seemed to articulate it best. The two essays by him in this volume condense his solution quite admirably, that we can see in practice in Jesus of Nazareth, as I have said.

Overall, this is a good, valuable book. For most of us it will require several re-reads to get everything out of it, but, of course, every good book does. It is not too long to make this too great a commitment.