August 2002

Renewing Catholic biblical scholarship

Luke Timothy Johnson

‘The recovery of an authentically Catholic scriptural scholarship is urgent, for we are already well down the road to forgetfulness.’ Luke Timothy Johnson, who is Professor of New Testament at the Chandler School of Theology, Emory University, Georgia, USA, explains why such a recovery is so important and how it might be achieved.

A call for the renewal of Catholic biblical scholarship in 2002 may strike some as odd. Isn’t that exactly what has been happening over the past fifty years since Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, opened the way for Catholic scholars to approach the Bible with the same historical-critical methods long employed by Protestant scholars? Well, yes and no.

From some perspectives, biblical scholarship looks robust, indeed. There are more people with advanced degrees in biblical studies producing more scholarship than ever before. There’s lots of product.

From another perspective, precisely all that activity and production appears as a problem. Is there any point to it all? I am among a small number who see a crisis in biblical scholarship generally. It is increasingly removed from the life of the Church sociologically: the academic rather than the faith community is its context. And it is less and less connected to the questions important to the Church: biblical scholars increasingly are historians rather than theologians. And if there is a crisis for biblical scholarship generally, there is a crisis in particular for Catholic biblical scholarship, for the story of the last fifty years has been partly about Catholics finding their way into exciting new territory, and partly about losing a sense of where they are from and where they are going. A call for renewal therefore is not a call for learning new things but for remembering some older things that we ought not to have forgotten.

Perhaps it would be useful to remember that Catholics did interpret the Bible before 1943, and had been doing so for some 1900 years! To see the changes for good and bad over the past few years, we can begin by reminding ourselves of the characteristics, good and bad, of Scripture scholarship within the Church in that lengthy early period.

The good side is that the study of Scripture and Catholic tradition existed in harmonious relationship. Scripture was not something separate from liturgy and the life of faith. Catholics did not study Scripture as a subject. They learned it (more than they usually suspected!) within and from the practices of piety. The liturgy, both the Eucharist and the divine office, are scriptural through and through. Catholics could imagine the world imagined by Scripture because that world was constructed constantly through the practices of faith.

For the Church

This ground-level experience of Scripture, in turn, was nourished by a long scholarly conversation about Scripture that extended from the earliest bishops and martyrs through the monks and mendicants down to the clergy of the local parish. Several strong convictions ran through this long conversation: that Scripture is God’s inspired word, that it is life-giving and transforming, that it speaks in many ways and at many levels — not only as a historical witness to the past, but as a prophetic witness to the present life of faith. Such interpretation of Scripture took place entirely within and for the life of the Church. Scholars were priests and religious who learned Scripture as part of theology, who preached at Mass, who could not have conceived of a mode of scriptural interpretation that was simply about knowledge rather than about edification.

There was also a bad side to the state of Catholic biblical scholarship before 1943. Yes, it was in living conversation with tradition, but, too often, the conversation was one-sided: the witness of Scripture could be swallowed up by tradition, so that it only confirmed and never challenged the Church’s practices. Yes, the reading of Scripture at several levels enriched the imagination, but a neglect of the literal sense sometimes led to fantasies only loosely attached to Scripture itself. Yes, a lively and imaginative engagement with Scripture extended through the centuries, but it was carried out in contexts and languages unavailable to most Catholics: the riches of the divine office were in Latin and accessible mainly to monks, the riches of the Mass were also in Latin and unintelligible to most lay people. Yes, Scripture and theology went together in the training and practice of the clergy, but this meant the exclusion of lay people and in particular women from active participation in scriptural interpretation.

Joy and hope
Pope Pius XII’s encyclical affirmed all the traditional values in Catholic scriptural interpretation, but it also enabled scholars to practise the historical method that had dominated biblical scholarship among Protestants for over a hundred years. Included in this opening was an encouragement to seek the original sense of and to translate into modern languages the original Hebrew and Greek in addition to the Latin Vulgate. Small wonder that scholars as well as the ordinary faithful considered the Pope’s letter a cause for unalloyed joy and hope. At the simplest level, it allowed scholars the same freedom of enquiry that was enjoyed by Protestant colleagues but that had formerly been forbidden them. The move into historical study seemed also to encourage ecumenism: Catholics now joined a wider conversation, and one in which all participants shared the same objective methods; how could greater understanding and agreement among denominations not follow as a result? Translation from Hebrew and Greek into modern languages meant also the production of research and teaching instruments geared to this new knowledge, so that the circle of participation within the Catholic community could be enlarged to include laity as well as clergy. Finally, there could be hope that, just as historical study was renewing the liturgy, so could the historical approach within biblical studies enable a similar renewal of scriptural study and appreciation among Catholics.

Brave new world?
After fifty years, the brave new world of historical-critical biblical scholarship has turned out to be more ambiguous than anticipated. Not all Catholic scholars yet see things this way. Some of my colleagues think things are just fine. It depends a bit on one’s generation and one’s personal experience. I speak as a Catholic New Testament scholar born in 1943 (the year of Pius XII’s encyclical), who was nurtured by the rich traditions of the liturgy and the divine office as a teenage seminarian and then as a Benedictine monk. Leaving the Monastery, I did doctoral work in New Testament at Yale — a bastion of the historical-critical approach — and have taught in both Protestant seminaries at Yale and Emory, as well as in a state university, for the past twenty-five years. I belong to what might be called the ‘third generation’ of Catholic scholars following Divino Afflante Spiritu.

Like my earlier use of the phrases ‘new territory’ and ‘brave new world’, my reference to ‘generations’ evokes the classic experience of North American immigrants. Sociological studies show that first, second, and third-generation immigrants to the United States from a European country characteristically had different perceptions because of their distinct experiences. I am suggesting that ‘historical-critical scholarship’ represented an analogous ‘new world’ experience for Catholic biblical scholars.

First-generation immigrants to America (say, from Italy) were so Italian in language and culture that in some sense, ‘becoming American’ simply meant being Italian in a new place, but with new citizenship rights and new opportunities. Similarly, the first generation of Catholic scholars who engaged historical-critical methods were so thoroughly Catholic in their training and sensibility, that the new methods simply represented an enrichment rather than a replacement.

Second-generation immigrants to America, however, often want to forget ‘the old country’ entirely. They want to be more American than the Americans. They resent the Italian the parents still speak at home; they learn how to ‘pass’ so that no one would ever guess that they were Italian. In the same fashion, second-generation Catholic biblical scholars sought total assimilation into the new world that had been dominated by Protestant scholars. They wanted to play the historical game even better than the natives. And if the game is essentially an academic one, then they would write larger commentaries with more footnotes, to prove they belonged.

Third-generation immigrants typically sense that they have lost as much as they have gained by their complete assimilation into American culture. They are now unequivocally like everyone else, but what use is that? They certainly do not want to return to Italy, and probably don’t want to learn Italian, but they seek some sense of roots; perhaps learning to cook lasagne as Grandma used to make it would be a start. In the same way, biblical scholars of my (third) generation are becoming aware that the complete assimilation of Catholics into the guild of scholarship has been a mixed blessing. Yes, Catholics now are recognised as leaders in the field; yes, Catholics are found in the best university positions; yes, Catholics head various academic journals and societies. But in what sense are they still Catholic?

My generation of Catholic Scripture scholars is (or ought to be) going through a period of self-examination concerning the state of biblical scholarship and what it means to be a Catholic engaged in this ever-growing academic field. Although it is well aware of and appreciates the gains made by the previous two generations, and although it certainly does not want to return to ‘the old country’ in which the Vulgate was the required text and historical criticism was forbidden, my generation nevertheless asks whether some of the gains have been too expensive, whether as much has been lost as gained, whether there are some values from ‘the old country’ that we need to look at more closely.

On close examination of hard experience, for example, it seems clear that the historical-critical approach is deeply deficient, especially when it is the sole way of reading Scripture. To be sure, the more history we learn, the more intelligible the texts of the Bible become, and the more responsible we can be in our analogous reasoning on the basis of the Bible.

But the historical-critical approach has never been content with learning history in order better to hear Scripture. It has been far more preoccupied with historical reconstruction with the use of biblical sources, whether of ancient Israel, the early Church, or, most notoriously, the ‘historical Jesus’. The very efforts to carry out such reconstructions have revealed the limitations of the enterprise. Catholics reasonably wonder why self-designated objective scholars using purportedly objective methods on identical sources should end up with such widely divergent results. More significantly, the historical approach has as its entire purpose keeping Scripture in the past. Ostensibly, this is so we can encounter its otherness and challenge. In fact, however, the historical chase is often its own reward, and the ability of the historical approach to inform theology or nurture faith has not been decisively demonstrated.

Protestant presumptions
Some Catholic scholars’ disenchantment with the historical-critical approach is accompanied by a growing awareness that by no means has this approach been truly objective or neutral. The ‘new land’ that Catholics entered after Pius XII was one in which implicitly Protestant theological presuppositions governed the populace and its practices. If the spirit of Catholicism can be termed an attitude of ‘both/and’, the spirit of Protestantism (especially in the form of the Lutheranism that shaped the historical-critical approach) can be called an attitude of ‘either/or’.

Thus, biblical scholarship tends to adopt the posture of the Reformation that pitted Scripture against tradition: the recovery of scriptural origins was meant precisely to challenge the developed doctrine and practice of the Church. In the Enlightenment secularisation of this Reformation impulse, the either/or was more radical, taking the form of reason against Scripture. The point of the scholar became to critically assess the shape and substance of Scripture itself, as though from a superior vantage point, rather than humbly seek to discover its ways. In the American institutionalisation of this spirit, we find the secular university not only separate from, but actively antagonistic toward, the Church.

The either/or is expressed also by opposing Christian origins to the development of the Church. The preoccupation with the ‘apostolic age’ and the dismissal of the second century as a decline in the direction of ‘Early Catholicism’ has nothing to do with sober historiography and everything to do with theological commitments that are specifically Protestant in character. In this view, even the earliest development of the Church was already a corruption of its original spirit, and historical study serves the cause of Reformation by its recovery of pristine origins. The pure form of this commitment is the preference for the ‘historical Jesus’ to ‘the Christ of Faith’, as though even the Gospels got Jesus wrong. While Catholics have always looked to the apostolic age as a norm for its authentic life (witness the reform movements of monks and mendicants), it has considered development less as corruption — although that too has happened — than as a spirit-guided discernment through time of how to adapt the apostolic witness to new circumstances. And while Catholics look to the humanity of Jesus as the measure of their identity, they find that humanity perfectly portrayed in the literary representations of the Gospels rather than in the cardboard reconstructions of historians.

Literal and figurative opposition
The either/or expresses itself also in the opposition between the literal sense of the text and the figurative. The Reformation began by insisting that only the literal sense of Scripture could guide the life of the Church, whereas all forms of allegory were dangerous distractions. The historical-critical approach has pushed that opposition relentlessly, to such an extent that even the allegorical interpretations of the parables offered by the Gospels themselves are considered less authentic and less worthy of Jesus. The insistence that the text must be read only in its historical context and can have only one historical meaning can become an implicit assertion that the Bible has only human authors and not a divine author, that its lessons therefore can only be human lessons rather than divine instruction, that its depictions are locked in the past and cannot speak authoritatively to the present. Catholics have never considered the literal sense of Scripture unimportant. But because they have regarded Scripture as divinely inspired, they have appreciated the many ways in which Scripture can enlarge wisdom through the play of imagination.

The third generation of Catholic biblical scholars recognises the sad paradox that, although Catholic scholars are now universally recognised as full members of the critical guild, there is nothing recognisably Catholic in their scholarship. The tendencies within critical biblical scholarship drawing it away from the care and concern for the Church will in all probability only increase, as the centre of such scholarship — and above all the training of future seminary professors — increasingly becomes the secular university. Catholic scholars located in the most prestigious institutions of higher learning produce impressive volumes that are read by other scholars. Fewer and fewer of these leading biblical scholars can be called theologians in any sense; fewer and fewer of them write directly for lay readers among the faithful. If the older scholarship was a closed club because it allowed only male clergy, the newer scholarship threatens to become equally closed, not because it has failed to include lay and women participants, but because its scholarship is in service only to the small and specialised world of the academy rather than to the larger arena of the Church in the public forum.

Forward not backward
The recovery of an authentically Catholic scriptural scholarship is urgent, for we are already well down the road of forgetfulness. We must begin now while a few of us remember some threads of continuity. But the way forward, I insist, must not be a turning backward. The Enlightenment has been, on the whole, a great benefit for humanity. The uses of history are many and important. By no means am I suggesting an obscurantist return to the situation before Pius XII. We could not return to pre-modernity even if we tried. We must rather enter into a stance that many now call ‘post-modern’, which enables us to learn from both modernity and pre-modernity without being fully defined by either. If we continue to affirm the central importance of history in biblical studies, for example, we must be willing to make some distinctions. We can affirm the need to learn history in order to understand the text, without agreeing that we should deconstruct the text in order to reconstruct history. We can acknowledge the use of history to decipher the original voice of the text, without agreeing that the original meaning is the only level of significance. We can recognise the critical functions of history, without limiting criticism to a single way of knowing (like the historical) but expanding it to include literary criticism, moral criticism, theological criticism, of the text.

Then we must work together to restore something of the Catholic spirit of ‘both/and’ to biblical studies. This means first a concern not only for the time of origins but also the stages of development: Scripture as a living voice within the Church continued to speak and to be received in diverse ways that are significant not only for our understanding of our own history but also for our sense of the text’s potential for meaning. Second, it means a commitment to the life of the Church, its living tradition. Catholic Scripture scholars bear a responsibility to bring their critical thinking to the contemporary Church as well as ancient texts. They must dare to be theologians. They must be brave enough to risk relevance. They must seek to build the Church and not only the academy. Third, Scripture scholars must dedicate themselves to the pedagogy that will begin to create genuine levels of biblical literacy among the laity and clergy alike. The Scripture scholar should not only ask how such ecclesial practices as decision-making are addressed by Scripture, but must also seek to construct practices that enable the Church to read Scripture together as Church.

Finally, contemporary Catholic scholars need to rejoin the longer conversation concerning the meanings of Scripture that extends from the second to the sixteenth century. Engaging this history of interpretation not only serves to illumine the text of Scripture, it can remind contemporary readers of certain sensibilities proper to those who are scholars in and for the Church. One is the conviction that the inspired text speaks God’s word as well as human words, and that the task of interpretation is essentially to seek the divine as well as or even more than the human word. Another is the openness to Scripture’s speaking in many ways and at many different levels, able to feed the imaginative as well as the analytic mind. Another is that scriptural interpretation is more than a matter of knowledge (scientia); it is also a matter of wisdom (sapientia), so that the scholar’s work cannot stop short at explanation, it must seek transformation. Another is that it is possible to exercise the mind freely and critically without losing loyalty and love, that indeed the highest loyalty demands criticism, just as criticism demands the deepest loyalty.

All Catholics have a stake in the renewal of biblical scholarship. The Church cannot look to the academy for solutions, for the academy has problems enough of its own. Instead, the Church must begin to look to its own resources, seeking first to provide encouragement for the development of real practices of reading for transformation within the Church, and then demanding of its scholars that they learn to teach in a manner that builds the Church in love.

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