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Contemporary Biblical Studies “Bankrupt”?

In his 2011 plenary address to the Academy of Catholic Theology, published in the 7/21/11 volume of Origins, Fr. Thomas Weinandy said, among other provocative claims:

“Given the bankruptcy of so much modern and contemporary scriptural scholarship, the time is opportune for systematic theologians and moralists to seize back the Bible and make it what it rightly is–the primary source book of their own disciplines” (161).

I want to reflect on this a bit.

In doing so, I would like to resist the urge to simply react to the sweeping attack on modern and scriptural scholarship. It is impossible to know which scholars or which schools of thought Rev. Weinandy has in mind. But it seems to me that engaging those scholars would be an important first step if Catholic theologians wish to “seize back” the Bible and re-orient their contemporary scholarship. A second underlying claim here is the assumption that contemporary Catholic theologians are not already fully engaged with the Bible as a primary source book. Again, it is difficult to know whom Weinandy has in mind here. I can’t think of anyone doing Catholic moral theology who fails to engage the Bible.

The Second Vatican Council challenged moralists to return to the Scriptures. Optatam Totius explains:

Special care is to be taken for the improvement of moral theology. Its scientific presentation, drawing more fully on the teaching of holy scripture, should highlight the lofty vocation of the christian faithful and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world (no. 16).

Now, it is worth noting that this quotation is from a document on the training of priests, issued in 1965. At the time, moral theology was still mostly a clerical endeavor. It was confession-oriented, canon-low focused, seminary-controlled. The assumption of this document is that the typical moral theologian will be a priest. That is simply not true today. But contemporary moralists have drawn more fully on the teaching of holy scripture. Still, this is not a simple deductive task. As Rev. Richard Gula explains in his book, Reason Informed by Faith:

Scripture is a normative criterion of judgment in Christian morality because Christians believe that in the events recounted there, pre-eminently in the life of Jesus, God’s intentions for human living are revealed. Hence, the authority of the Bible for morality is that it is the word of God, the privileged, though not exclusive, source of our knowledge of God and of God’s intentions for us. That scripture ought to inform and shape the Christian moral life, then, follows from its authority. But just how it does so is a difficult and complex matter (165).

Gula’s analysis is a helpful starting point because he acknowledges: (1) the Bible is essential; (2) the Bible is not the only important source; (3) there is ongoing discussion about how scripture  shapes moral theology and Christian discipleship.

As I understand it, the standard Catholic approach to the Bible (built on the analysis of folks like Daniel Harrington, William Spohn, Charles Curran, Richard Gula, and others) acknowledges that the Bible is a “faith text,” not an “historical” text. In other words, one should not approach the Bible assuming that one will discover an eye-witness journalistic account of historically factual events. In addition, the Bible is inspired by God and inerrant (that is, without error in regard to the truths of salvation). The Bible is really more of a “bookshelf” than a book, in that it contains many different books from different time periods collected by human authors. In this sense it is already a product of tradition, reason, and experience (often cited as the other sources of moral wisdom). Further, the meaning of the Bible is not “self evident” but rather the text must be interpreted. This is what “hermeneutics” means. And finally, faith formation happens through the narrative aspect of the text. The Bible is proclaimed in liturgy, and Christians reflect on the Bible in personal prayer. We come to see ourselves as part of a story, as part of God’s love story with humanity. Timothy Carmody elaborates on these points in his book, Reading the Bible: A Study Guide:

Christians claim that the Bible is inspired. This does not mean that every word in the Bible was dictated to the authors or that every word is a word of God directed to humans for their salvation. There are many words in the Bible that reflect human wisdom and are human opinion. Rather, the claim of inspiration says that the entire book expresses God’s desire for humans.. . . Inerrancy means that as a whole the Bible does not lead to error but will lead to a deeper and truer understanding of an relationship with God. . . There is no claim of total inerrancy, where every historical or scientific fact is regarded as true. The truth claim of the Bible is restricted to God’s plan for human salvation (4).

Now, this caution is essential when one thinks of the further contributions of feminist theologians who encourage a critical approach to sacred scripture. One component of that is the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” One of the most well known feminist theologians, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, explained in her 1984 book, Bread Not Stone:

A critical feminist hermeneutics of liberation therefore seeks to develop a critical dialectical mode of biblical interpretation that can do justice to women’s experiences of the Bible as a thoroughly patriarchal book written in androcentric language as well as to women’s experience of the Bible as a source of empowerment and vision in our struggles for liberation. Such a hermeneutics has to subject biblical texts to a dialectical process of critical readings and feminist evaluations. In order to do so it insists that the litmus test for invoking Scripture as the Word of God must be whether or not biblical texts and traditions seek to end relations of domination and exploitation.

In this way, Schussler Fiorenza employs the metaphor of bread in that our interpretation of the Bible should nourish, sustain, and energize the people of God. It is worth noting that Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza encourages other hermeneutical approaches to the text in addition to the hermeneutics of suspicion, as when she advocates for a hermeneutics of proclamation, a hermeneutics of remembrance and historical reconstruction, as well as a hermeneutics of ritualization and celebration (xx). Much exciting work has been written more recently about how Bible study groups can be a “safe space” for helping people, especially marginalized people, to critically engage and creatively explore various interpretations of a given text as they come to build community together and come to understand themselves as beloved of God (Beverley Haddad, Gerald West, James Cochrane, and Jonathan Draper advocate for these approaches in their postcolonial approach to the Bible in a South African context).

So, contemporary moral theologians face a challenging task when we think of the need to integrate scripture with our scholarly thinking and writing. We must engage the scholarship from biblical studies, including literary, form, source, redaction, textual, historical, and contextual criticisms. We need to avoid a fundamentalist or proof-texting methodology. We can think about this in terms of what is going on in the text as well as what is going on behind the text as well as what we bring to the text.

Gula suggests that moral theologians remain “modest about the claims we make when appealing to the Bible in moral reflection” (167). This advice rings true for me. Given the variety of scholarly-critical approaches and the complexity of the Bible itself, it is difficult for me to know what it means to “seize back” the Bible.

I therefore open up the conversation to others: how do you integrate sacred scripture in your theological thinking? What would it mean for you to “seize back” the Bible?

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for your post. Your questions could lead to a very long response so I will be brief in my thoughts. As not being a “bibilical scholar,” my approach to Scripture would be one of appreciating the Word for its prophetic and dynamic message first within the context in which it was written historically and culturally, and in its message of God’s interaction in our lives and the life of the Church today. I see the Word as the basis of our theological reflection and the teaching of the Church but not in a static sense. For example, how does God’s view of creation and particularly the life and dignity of the human person as found in Scripture influence our views today on something such as bio-ethics? As to “seize back” the Bible, I would say this would be freeing it from idelogical and contrived analysis meant to grind a particular political and partisan axe. That is not to say that the Word of God does not touch on political matters today, but rather than our particular politics being read into the Word it is the Word that should enlighten our politics.

  2. Has somebody provided a link to the entire address?

  3. VAThomist, Thanks for chiming in even though I agree this could require much longer analysis. I was just wondering if you had an example in mind when you talk about “freeing it from ideological and contrived analysis meant to grind a particular political and partisan axe.” Some people would use this kind of rhetoric to discount feminist/womanist/black theology approaches but I dont’ think that is a fair dismissal. Or were you talking about a fundamentalist approach in the public sphere?
    Matthew, to my knowledge there is not a free public link for the address. Some schools have the online subscription and if you are willing to pay for it you can go here: http://www.originsonline.com/

  4. My response would be all of the above. For example, take the research of Michael Novak on Aquinas, if you look at his writing you would think the political thought of Aquinas is synonymous with whig liberalism. This is first, erroneous, and second, just clearly anachronistic. That is the problem with idelogical re-interpretations of Scripture to fit a particular agenda wether liberal or conservative. It is understandable that black theology, liberation theology would read the Scriptures through that particular cognitive lens, but is this any different than a libertarian interpretation of the Scripture passage, “render on to Caeser?” or thinking subsidiarity means let’s cut all forms of discretionary spending in the federal budget? This type of interpretation style I offer, is problematic in general.

  5. Well, it depends. We interpret the Bible from our contextual experience and together with other forms of knowledge. To argue for a liberationist approach to the text means that one is privileging the theme of liberation within the canon and constructing a Theology/Christology focusing on this theme. I too would be suspicious if it were clear that the author was engaged in an “ideological reinterpretation to fit a particular agenda” but again, I don’t know who fits this description.

  6. I teach biblical studies at a Catholic college. Fr. Weinandy’s reference to contemporary biblical studies as “bankrupt” is a polemical overstatement. However, I and others among a younger generation of Catholic biblical scholars had grown concerned that, in many ways, Catholic biblical scholarship was at risk of hitting a dead end. The principle problem was that the method had become the end, rather than the means. For example, rather than employ historical understanding in order to grasp the theological import of a text, the (unattainable) historical origins of texts became the goal resulting in as many proposals for, say, the community behind John’s Gospel as the scholars who propose them. Additionally, while J, E, D, and P might be interesting for examining the possible literary sources of the Pentateuch, what does any proposed hypothetical historical background for each source have to do with the life of the church? It is the Book of Genesis that we hear proclaimed at liturgies, not the Book of J.

    One can find an illustration of the problem in the less-than-enthusiastic response that Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson received for his paper “What’s Catholic about Catholic Biblical Scholarship” at the 1997 meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association. Since then Johnson has been urging a renewal within Catholic biblical scholarship (see http://www.thepastoralreview.org/cgi-bin/archive_db.cgi?priestsppl-00078) because, he argues, it has forgotten its purpose which is to serve the life of the church.

    This problem is not specific to Catholics. The main guild of biblical scholarship, the Society of Biblical Literature, recently underwent its own controversy over Ronald Hendel who did not renew his membership because he was concerned that religious faith was playing an unnecessary role in the work of some biblical scholars. And if the irony of a biblical scholar objecting to the role of faith in scholarship is not enough for you, among the people who wrote in support of Hendel’s concerns on the SBL home page was a Catholic priest (see the June 23, 2010, post at http://www.sbl-site.org/membership/farewell.aspx).

    Interestingly, it is Protestants (primarily evangelical scholars) who are primarily turning back to the reading traditions within Christian history as a resource for contemporary scholarship. Scholars like N.T. Wright, Joel Green, Stephen Fowl, and Richard Baukham come immediately to mind as examples of the contemporary theological interpretation movement. There is now a growing number of Catholic scholars emerging within this field (e.g., Michael Barber and Scott Hahn) who are joining the dialogue while trying to maintain a distinctively Catholic approach. In this way Fr. Weinandy is quite mistaken; contemporary Catholic and Protestant biblical scholarship is entering a theologically fertile period, one that seeks dialogue with moral and systematic theologians.

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