Friday, September 24, 2004

Scripture Scholarship...

Zorak links to this EWTN Q&A and I have to say that I'm disappointed by both the situation described by Timothy and the answer given by Father Echert.

Firstly, it's a sad state of affairs that anyone studying theology in a Catholic university should come away with their faith so-weakened. It seems to me that the 'scientific' or 'historical critical' study of scripture in isolation can lead to this, but we should not, for that reason adopt a reactionary attitude to this discipline. What is lacking, from what I can determine, in the theological studies offered in the certain parts of the English-speaking world is an insufficient philosophical appreciation of the nature of scripture studies. The fundamental axiom of historical-critical studies is that the scriptures, as documents from the past, are amenable to the tools of textual, historical and critical analysis which are applied to the studies of other historical documents. Whether scripture means more than Homer is not a matter addressed by this particular science. To my mind, the results of historical criticism can and do shed light on the meaning of scripture, but only in as much as they are historical documents with true human authors (c.f. Dei Verbum 11). They can certainly inform one's faith, but one needs to be keenly aware of the scope and limitation of the method.
The problem therefore with the likes of Hicks and Bultmann is that their philosophical and theological understanding of scripture, not with the historical-critical method. Particularly in Bultmann's case, we cannot simply reject a priori their work on the grounds of a blanket rejection of modern scripture scholarship. Rather students should be trained to appreciate and distinguish the different aspects of their thoughts - like it or not, no matter how wrong-headed his overall theological vision was, Bultmann was one of the influential greats of 20th century scripture scholarship. In a Catholic university, obviously, scripture cannot be taught with an uncritical acceptance of the underlying presuppositions of these exegetes.
However, nor can we ignore these exegetes. It is disappointing to see how many of the 'traditionalists' (even supposedly well-educated ones) adopt an ostrich-like attitude to these issues. That's why I'm less than thrilled that Fr. Echert's response to a (presumably) educated enquirer is to send him to Haydock's 19th century commentary. I don't have access to my library at the moment and can't therefore browse through Haydock, but I cannot imagine that his obsolete scholarship is a satisfactory solution to Timothy's doubts. I understand the patristic content of Haydock is well-regarded and I don't doubt that we need to recover a greater appreciation for patristic exegesis, but 19th century 'solid exegesis' is unlikely to fit the bill.
Far better for someone with a background in theology would be an approach which would help to put scripture back into context. This would involve looking at fundamental theology rather than scripture studies. Without having an appreciation for the relationship between Revelation, Scripture, Tradition and the Church one cannot appreciate the value and the limits of historical-critical analysis. A look at the theology of Biblical inspiration would also be essential - what do we mean by the Divine and human authorship of the scriptures?
In this context, I would suggest that Dei Verbum would be the indispensable reference and the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1993 Document 'On the Interpretation of Scripture in the Church' would also be worth a look. (I would note that this latter document does have weaknesses however in its inadequate treatment of some of the alternatives to the Historical Critical Method.) As regards solid English-language textbooks in he area of Fundamental Theology, I'm not as au fait with the literature as I should be - anyone got any suggestions?
Without a doubt some Catholic Universities are doing their students a great disservice (putting it mildly) in their approach to Sacred Scripture. What is disappointing is the lack of effective and intelligent response by more conservative/traditionalist Catholics which is sadly often at odds with the intellectual traditions of the Church.

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