“For the faith, the reality of the happening is instead constitutive”
“The opinion that the faith as such knows absolutely nothing of the historical facts and must leave all that to the historians is Gnosticism: the opinion makes the faith evanescent and reduces it to pure idea. For the faith that is based on the Bible, the reality of the happening is instead constitutive. A God who cannot intervene in history and who does not show himself in it is not the God of the Bible”. The speech of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the hundredth anniversary of its constitution
by Joseph Ratzinger
I did not choose the topic of my speech only because it is a part of the questions that belong by right to a retrospective on the hundred years of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, but because it relates, so to speak, to the problems of my biography also: for more than half a century my personal theological career has lain in the sphere defined by this topic.
In the decree of the Consistorial Congregation of June 29 1912 De quibusdam commentariis non admittendis one comes upon two names that have run across my life. There, in fact, is set out the condemnation of the Introduction to the Old Testament by the Freising professor, Karl Holzhey; he was already dead when in January 1946 I began my theology studies on the hill of the cathedral of Freising, but eloquent anecdotes still circulated about him. He must have been a man rather full of himself and gloomy. More familiar to me is the second name mentioned, that of Fritz Tillmann, the editor of a Commentary on the New Testament, judged unacceptable. In the book, the author of the commentary on the Synoptics was Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, a friend of Tillmann, then lecturer in Strasbourg. The decree of the Consistorial Congregation established that all the single commentaries expungenda omnino esse ab institutione clericorum. The Commentary, of which I had found a forgotten copy when I was student at the junior seminary of Traunstein, must have been banned and withdrawn from circulation because Maier upheld the so-called two source theory on the Synoptic question, nowadays approved by practically everyone. That, at the time, brought about the end of the scholarly careers of Tillmann and Maier. Both were, however, allowed to change theological discipline. Tillmann took advantage of the chance to become a leading German moral theologian. Together with Theodor Steinbüchel and Theodor Müncker he edited an avant-garde manual of moral theology that dealt with this important discipline in a new manner and presented it according to the background idea of the imitation of Christ. Maier didn’t want to take advantage of a change of discipline; he was in fact devoted mind and heart to work on the New Testament. So he became a military chaplain and as such took part in the First World War. Later he worked as prison chaplain up to the 1924, when, with the nulla osta of the Archbishop of Breslau (today Wroclaw), Cardinal Bertram, in a more relaxed atmosphere, he was called to the New Testament chair of the theological faculty there. In 1945, when the faculty was suppressed, he came to Munich with other colleagues, where I had him as teacher.
The wound of 1912 never altogether healed in him, nevertheless he could teach his subject practically without problems and was sustained by the enthusiasm of his students, to whom he succeeded in transmitting his passion for the New Testament and a correct interpretation of it. Now and again in his lectures memories of the past would rise to the surface. Above all an expression that he used in 1948 or 1949 has remained with me. He said that by now he could freely follow his historian’s conscience, but that the complete freedom he dreamed of for exegesis still hadn’t been arrived at. He also said that he probably wouldn’t live to see it, but that he wanted at least, like Moses from Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land of an exegesis freed from all control and conditioning by the Magisterium. We felt that the mind of this learned man, who led an exemplary priestly life, founded on the faith of the Church, was weighed down not only by that decree of the Consistorial Congregation, but that the various decrees of the Biblical Commission – on the Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch (1906), on the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909), on the authors and period of composition of the Psalms (1910), on Mark and Luke (1912), on the Synoptic question (1912), and so on – fettered his work as an exegete in a fashion he retained unmerited. The impression still persisted that Catholic exegetes, because of such magisterial decisions, were prevented from performing their scholarly scientific work without constraints, and that in this way Catholic exegesis, as compared to Protestant, could never keep up with the times and that its scholarly seriousness was, to some extent rightly, put in doubt by Protestants. Naturally he was also influenced by the conviction that rigorous historical work could ascertain in reliable manner the objective factual data of history, indeed, that this was the only possible way to understand the biblical books in their proper meaning, for they are, precisely, books of history. He took for granted the reliability and the unequivocability of the historical method; the idea that philosophical presuppositions also played a part in that method, and that it could become necessary to reflect on the philosophical implications of the historical method, never entered his head. To him, as to many of his colleagues, philosophy seemed an element of disturbance, something that could only pollute the pure objectivity of historical enquiry. The hermeneutic question did not occur to him, that is he didn’t ask himself to what extent the enquirer’s field of vision determines access to the text, making it necessary to clarify, first of all, what the correct way of asking is and in what way it is possible to purify one’s asking. For that very reason Mount Nebo would surely have reserved him some surprises wholly beyond his horizon.
Now I’d like to try to climb, so to speak, up Mount Nebo to observe with him, from the standpoint of that time, the ground we’ve covered over the last fifty years. It might, in this respect, be useful to keep in mind the experience of Moses. Chapter 34 of Deuteronomy tells how Moses was granted a glimpse from Mount Nebo of the Promised Land, which he saw in all its expanse. It was, so to speak, a purely geographical, not historical, glimpse that he was granted. However, one could say that chapter 28 of the same book offers a glimpse not of the geography but of the future history in and with the Land, and that that chapter offers a quite different perspective, very less consoling: “And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other […]. And among these nations you shall find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot” (Deut 28, 64ff). What Moses saw in this inward vision could be summarized as: freedom can destroy itself; when it loses its intrinsic criterion it suppresses itself.
What might a historical glimpse from Nebo on the land of the last fifty years of exegesis perceive? First of all many things that would have been of comfort to Maier, the realization of his dream, so to speak. Already the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu of 1943 introduced a new way of understanding the relationship between the Magisterium and the scholarly demands of the historical reading of the Bible. Later, the ’sixties represented the entry into the Promised Land of freedom for exegesis, to continue with the metaphor. First we find the instruction of the Biblical Commission of 21 April 1964 on the historical truth of the Gospels, but then, above all, the Council constitution Dei Verbum of 1965 on divine Revelation, with which in fact a new chapter in the relationship between Magisterium and scholarly exegesis opened. There is no need to stress here the importance of this fundamental text. It, first of all, defines the concept of Revelation, which is in no way to be identified with its written testimony which is the Bible, and thus opens the vast horizon, historical and theological together, in which the interpretation of the Bible takes place, an interpretation that sees in Scripture not only human books, but the evidence of divine utterance. It thus becomes possible to determine the concept of Tradition, that also goes beyond the Scriptures, though having its center in them, from the moment that Scripture is first of all and by nature “tradition”. This leads to the third chapter of the Constitution, devoted to the interpretation of Scripture; in it emerges, in cogent fashion, the absolute necessity of the historical method as essential part of the exegetical task, but then the properly theological aspect of interpretation also appears, that – as already said – is essential if that book is more than human word.
Let us go on with our survey from Mount Nebo: Maier, from his point of observation, would have been specially able to rejoice at what happened in June 1971. With the ‘motu proprio’ Sedula cura, Paul VI completely restructured the Biblical Commission in such a way that it was no longer an organ of the Magisterium, but a meeting-place for Magisterium and exegetes, a place of dialogue in which representatives of the Magisterium and qualified exegetes could meet to find together, so to speak, the intrinsic criteria of freedom that prevent it from self-destructing, raising it thus to the level of a real freedom. Maier could also have rejoiced at the fact that one of his best students, Rudolf Schnackenburg, had become part not quite of the Biblical Commission, but of the no less important International Theological Commission, so that now he himself, as it were, finds himself on the Commission that had brought him so much worry. Let us remember an other important date which, from our imaginary Nebo, could have appeared in the distance: the document of the Biblical Commission The interpretation of the Bible in the Church of 1993, in which it is no longer the Magisterium that imposes its rules on exegetes from above, but it is they who try to determine the criteria that point the way for a fitting interpretation of this special book, which, seen only from the outside, at bottom consists of no more than a literary collections of writings the composition of which covers a whole millennium. Only the subject from which this literature was born – the wayfaring people of God – makes this literary collection, with all its variousness and its apparent contrasts, a single book. This people, however, knows that it doesn’t speak or act out of itself, but is indebted to Him who makes them a people: the same living God who speaks through the authors of the individual books.
The Council constitution Dei Verbum of 1965 on divine Revelation, with which in fact a new chapter in the relationship between Magisterium and scholarly exegesis opened. There is no need to stress here the importance of this fundamental text. It, first of all, defines the concept of Revelation, which is in no way to be identified with its written testimony which is the Bible, and thus opens the vast horizon, historical and theological together, in which the interpretation of the Bible takes place, an interpretation that sees in Scripture not only human books, but the evidence of divine utteranceHas the dream come true then? Has the second half-century of the Biblical Commission cancelled and set aside as illegitimate what the first fifty years produced? To the first question I would reply that the dream has been translated into reality and that at the same time it has also been chastened. The mere objectivity of the historical method doesn’t exist. It’s simply impossible to exclude all philosophy, or hermeneutic pre-comprehension. This was already brought out, while Maier was still alive, in Bultmann’s Commentary on John, for example, in which Heideggerian philosophy not only served to make present the historically remote by acting, so to speak, as vehicle bringing the past into the our today, but also as bridge to take the reader inside the text. Now, this attempt has failed, but it has become evident that the pure historical method – as with profane literature also, for that matter – just doesn’t exist. It’s altogether understandable that Catholic theologians, at the period in which the decisions of the Biblical Commission of the time prevented a pure application of the historico-critical method, looked at Evangelical theologians with envy, who, in the meantime, with the seriousness of their research, were able to present results and new acquisitions on how this literature, that we call Bible, was born and grew throughout the going of the people of God. With that, however, too little consideration was given to the fact that in Protestant theology there was the opposite problem. One sees it clearly, for example, in the lecture given in 1936 by Bultmann’s great student, who later converted to Catholicism, Heinrich Schlier, on the ecclesial responsibility of the student of theology. At that time, evangelical Christianity in Germany was engaged in a battle for survival: the clash between the so-called German Christians (“deutsche Christen”), who by subjecting Christianity to the ideology of National Socialism adulterated it at the root, and the Confessing Church (“bekennende Kirche”). In that context Schlier addressed these words to the students of theology: «...Reflect an instant on what is better: that the Church, in a legitimate way and after careful reflection, should remove from teaching a theologian because of a heterodox doctrine, or that the individual should in gratuitous fashion brand one or other teacher as heterodox and give warning of him? One must not think that judging finishes when each is left to judge ad libitum. Here the liberal vision is coherent in affirming that no decision on the truth of a teaching can exist, that therefore every teaching has something true and that therefore all teachings should be admitted in the Church. But we don’t share this vision. It denies, in fact, that God has really taken a decision in the midst of us…». Those who recall that a large part of the Protestant Faculties of Theology was then almost exclusively in the hands of the German Christians and that for statements like the one just quoted Schlier had to leave academic teaching, are aware of the other facet of the issue.
We thus come to the second and closing question: how are we to assess, today, the first half-century of the Biblical Commission? Was everything only, so to speak, a tragic conditioning of the freedom of theology, a bunch of mistakes from which we had to free ourselves during the second half-century of the Commission, or should we instead consider this difficult process in a more multifaceted way? That things are not as simple as they were taken to be in the first flush of enthusiasm at the start of the Council, will already have emerged, perhaps, from what I’ve just said. It remains true that the Magisterium, with the decisions mentioned, has over enlarged the range of certainties that the faith can guarantee; for that reason it remains true that the credibility of the Magisterium has been diminished thereby and the space necessary to exegetical research and interrogative excessively restricted. But it remains equally true that, for what concerns the interpretation of Scripture, the faith has its word to speak and that hence pastors also are called to correct, when the distinctive nature of this book gets lost from sight and an objectivity, that is pure only in appearance, makes what Holy Writ has proper and specific to itself disappear. Laborious research was therefore indispensable for the Bible to have its proper hermeneutics and the historico-critical exegesis its rightful place.
It’s altogether understandable that Catholic theologians, at the period in which the decisions of the Biblical Commission of the time prevented a pure application of the historico-critical method, looked at Evangelical theologians with envy, who, in the meantime, with the seriousness of their research, were able to present results and new acquisitions on how this literature, that we call Bible, was born and grew throughout the passage of the people of God. With that, however, too little consideration was given to the fact that in Protestant theology there was the opposite problem. One sees it clearly, for example, in the lecture given in 1936 by Bultmann’s great student, who later converted to Catholicism, Heinrich Schlier, on the ecclesial responsibility of the student of theologyIt seems to me that in the problem, then and still now in question, two levels can be distinguished. At the first level one has to ask oneself how far the purely historical dimension of the Bible extends and where begins the specificity that evades mere historical rationality. One could also formulate the following as a problem within the historic method itself: what in reality can it do and what are its intrinsic limits? Which other modes of comprehension are necessary for a text of this kind? In a certain sense one could compare the laborious research undertaken to the effort required in the Galileo case. Up to what moment did it seem as if the geocentric view of the world was tied in an inextricable way to what was revealed by the Bible; it seemed as if those in favor of the heliocentric view of the world were shattering the core of the Revelation. The relationship between external appearance and the true and proper message of the whole had to be revised in depth, and only slowly might the criteria be worked out that would allowe scientific rationality and the specific message of the Bible to be put in correct relationship. True, one can’t say that the tension is ever totally resolved, in that the faith testified by the Bible also includes the material world, it asserts something about it also, on its origin and on that of man in particular. To reduce the whole of reality as we encounter it to pure material causes, to confine the creating Spirit to the sphere of mere subjectivity is incompatible with the fundamental message of the Bible. This, however, involves a debate on the very nature of true rationality; since, if one presents a purely materialistic explanation of reality as sole possible expression of rationality, then rationality itself is understood falsely. Something analogous must be said about history. Initially it seemed essential, to ensure the reliability of Scripture and then for the faith based on it, that the Pentateuch had to be attributed unquestionably to Moses or that the authors of the individual Gospels must really be those named by Tradition. Here, too, there was a need, so to speak, to slowly redefine the fields; the fundamental relationship between faith and history had to be rethought. Clarification of that sort could not be undertaken between today and tomorrow. Here again there will always be room for discussion. The opinion that the faith as such knows absolutely nothing of the historical facts and must leave all that to the historians, is Gnosticism: this opinion disembodies the faith and reduces it to pure idea. For the faith that is based on the Bible, the reality of the happening is instead constitutive exigency. A God who cannot intervene in history and show himself in it is not the God of the Bible. Wherefore the reality of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, the effective institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper, his resurrection in the body from the dead – this is the meaning of the empty tomb – are elements of the faith as such, that it can and must defend against an only alleged better historical knowledge. That Jesus – in ýverything that is essential – effectively was what the Gospels show is in no way a historic conjecture, but a datum of faith. Objections that would like to convince us of the opposite are not the expression of real scientific knowledge, but an arbitrary overestimation of the method. That in their particulars many questions must remain open and be entrusted to an interpretation conscious of its responsibility is what we have learned in the meantime.
With that appears the second level of the problem: it is not simply a matter of drawing up a list of historical elements essential to the faith. It is a matter of seeing what reason can do and why the faith can be reasonable and reason open to faith. In the meantime it is not just that the decisions of the Biblical Commission that had gone too far into the sphere of merely historical questions have been corrected; we have also learned something new about the formalities and limits of historical knowledge. Werner Heisenberg, in the sphere of the natural sciences, has made clear with his “principle of indeterminacy” that our knowledge never merely reflects what is objective, but is always determined also by the participation of the subject, by the point of view from which his questions are posed and by his ability to perceive. All this, naturally, is incomparably more valid when man himself enters the game or where the mystery of God becomes perceptible. Thus faith and science, Magisterium and exegesis, no longer stand against each other as worlds closed in on themselves. The faith is itself a way of knowing. Wanting to set it aside does not generate mere objectivity, but constitutes the choice of a standpoint that excludes a certain prospect and no longer wants to take account of the chance conditions of the chosen standpoint. If, however, one is aware that Holy Writ comes from God through a subject living still – the wayfaring people of God – then it becomes even rationally clear that this subject has something to say about the understanding of the book.
The Promised Land of freedom is more fascinating and manifold than the exegete of 1948 could have thought. The intrinsic conditions of freedom have become evident. It presupposes careful listening, knowledge of the limits of the various ways, full seriousness of ratio, but also readiness to limit and go beyond itself in thinking and in living together with the subject who guarantees to us the different writings of the Old and New Covenants as a single work, Holy Writ. We are deeply grateful for the openings that, as the harvest of a long effort of research, Vatican Council II gave to us. But let us not condemn the past even with lightness, instead let us see it as necessary part of a process of knowledge that, considering the greatness of the revealed Word and the limits of our abilities, will always set new challenges in front of us. But it is precisely in this that the beauty lies. And so, one hundred years after the constitution of the Biblical Commission, despite all the problems that have risen in this span of time, we can still look, thankful and full of hope, at the way that opens before us.