Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reading Scripture -- With and Without the Church

I recently finished An Introduction to New Testament Christology, by Fr. Raymond Brown. I don't read a lot of Bible scholarship (yeah, I know, it, but I picked up the book for $5 used and decided that I should read something of Fr. Brown's all the way through. He was known to me, vaguely, as one of the "bad guys" among 20th-century scripture scholars, the most prominent example within the Catholic intellectual establishment of a demythologizer in the Bultmann mold.

There is plenty in An Introduction to New Testament Christology to reinforce those initial impressions of mine. Fr. Brown engages in speculation on the historical authenticity of various passages in the Gospels, and applies form-criticism techniques to the question whether a particular statement of Jesus' represents ipsissima verba or is an insertion back into the Gospel of a later Christian community's understanding of Jesus' words. It's all impressively well-informed and intelligent, and I didn't find any of it especially  persuasive. And when, annotating Jesus' words in John 21:22, Fr. Brown suggests that "the Johannine author of chapter 21 employs casuistry to show that Jesus' promise [about the Beloved Disciple living  until the Second Coming] was not absolute," I think he crosses a line that mustn't be crossed in questioning the veracity of the Gospel record.

But none of that gets at the strongest impression I carried away from reading the book. Fr. Brown is a conscientious practitioner of the historical-critical method of scriptural exegesis, looking at exactly what the Bible text says and drawing whatever conclusions seem valid on the basis of that evidence. He does not argue (as a member of the Jesus Seminar would, for example) that the Bible text itself is the only evidence there can be. On the contrary, Fr. Brown is remarkably and refreshingly humble in defining the limits of his discipline. Here, for example, are two passages that I found impressive in their clarity, their honesty, and their Catholic orthodoxy. The first is Fr. Brown's summary of his position on whether the Gospels clearly depict a Jesus who was (1) all-knowing in keeping with his divinity, and (2) conscious of his own relationship to God the Father:

The issue of Jesus' self-awareness is not the same as the issue of how much knowledge he possessed. Above I have signalled extreme caution about the claim that Jesus knew all things (secular, religious, the future, etc.) -- a claim that runs against much scriptural evidence and (I note for Roman Catholics) in support of which there is no clearly binding church teaching. In reference to Jesus' awareness of  his own identity...the situation is different. There is not a word in the Gospels to indicate that at any stage of his life Jesus was not aware of a unique relationship to God; and although again there may not be a binding church definition that is absolutely clear, this issue is much closer to the heart of the Christian proclamation.

Fr. Brown's answers in this passage raised the further question of their compatibility with one particular Church pronouncement on Jesus' self-knowledge. Pope St. Pius X, in his condemnation of Modernism, identified as error the proposition that "Christ did not always possess the consciousness of his Messianic dignity." Fr. Brown points out that first-century Jews seem to have held widely variant understandings of what the Messiah was to be and that, for this reason, Jesus himself showed some ambivalence in proclaiming or acknowledging himself as the Messiah. To clear up this point -- and specifically to square his own reading of the Gospels with St. Pius X's definitive teaching on the subject -- Fr. Brown continues:

The present discussion of Jesus' attitude toward messianic terminology is perfectly consonant with faith in Jesus' divinity. If I had to phrase a common modern position with an eye on Pius X's statement, I would say that the Gospels always show Jesus conscious of his dignity (which involved a unique relationship to God); they are not clear as to whether he regarded "Messiah," in the sense understood by his contemporaries, adequate to express that dignity.

Here we have a prominent 20th-century Catholic exegete being true to his own understanding of the Gospel texts and simultaneously taking pains to demonstrate that that understanding is solidly within the bounds of (1) specific magisterial teaching and (2) the broader constant tradition of the Church ("the heart of the Christian proclamation," as Fr. Brown puts it). To my unschooled layman's mind, that's a very reassuring example of what Catholic scripture scholarship should be.

One other thought occurred to me after reading An Introduction to New Testament Christology. Fr. Brown (like all practitioners of the historical-critical method) insists on looking at the scriptural texts themselves, without recourse to patristic or medieval or modern applications of those texts to theological questions. But he does so without denying the usefulness of those other sources of biblical insight for a Catholic. The New Testament, as is often pointed out by Catholic apologists, is a Church document. It is the Church that gave us the Gospels, not the other way around. For the Catholic, as distinct from the scripture scholar, the Bible must be read with the Church -- as the Church reads it. Maybe that explains why modern approaches to scriptural study have undermined Christian orthodoxy among Protestants far more seriously than among Catholics. Without Tradition to illuminate and reinforce it, the Protestant Bible -- so famously sola -- stands exposed to every challenge of the demythologizers and the deconstructionists and the redactionists and the "historical-Jesus" hunters. The adherent to sola scriptura can make no corrective appeal to "the heart of the Christian proclamation," because for him it is the heart of the Christian proclamation that the scholars are challenging.

Coincidentally, the current issue of First Things contains a pithy expression of a very similar point. It's in an essay titled "A Richer Bible," by R. R. Reno (sorry -- subscription required to read the whole thing online). Here's the passage that says exactly what I've been trying to.

Historical study of the Bible certainly remains legitimate and perhaps necessary. But as a mode of interpretation it cannot serve as the final authority for Christian readers. Because the Church claims to teach apostolic doctrine, efforts by Christians to explain what the Bible fully and finally says require addressing Church teachings and explaining their truth in relation to the Bible. To do this, we cannot play an ad hoc game of match the doctrine to the verse. We need a biblically shaped metaphysical horizon for biblical interpretation, which is what the Nicene tradition provides.

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