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.

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