The Pope of Rome on the Bible

It is well known, my gentle snowflakes, that while I am no friend at all of Papism, I have enjoyed for many years the scholarly writing of the current Pope of Rome Dr Benedict XVI. I was therefore enormously pleased to learn of a lecture given by him a week ago at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris on “the origins of western theology and the roots of European culture,” in which he gave some attention to the nature of the Bible, hermeneutics and exegesis in that connection. I have excerpted the three more relevant paragraphs below, but the entire document deserves careful reading.

In order to understand to some degree the culture of the word, which developed deep within Western monasticism from the search for God, we need to touch at least briefly on the particular character of the book, or rather books, in which the monks encountered this word. The Bible, considered from a purely historical and literary perspective, is not simply a book, but a collection of literary texts which were redacted over the course of more than a thousand years, and in which the inner unity of the individual books is not immediately apparent. On the contrary, there are visible tensions between them. This is already the case within the Bible of Israel, which we Christians call the Old Testament. It is only rectified when we as Christians link the New Testament writings as, so to speak, a hermeneutical key with the Bible of Israel, and so understand the latter as the journey towards Christ. With good reason, the New Testament generally designates the Bible not as “the Scripture” but as “the Scriptures”, which, when taken together, are naturally then regarded as the one word of God to us. But the use of this plural makes it quite clear that the word of God only comes to us through the human word and through human words, that God only speaks to us through the humanity of human agents, through their words and their history. This means again that the divine element in the word and in the words is not self-evident. To say this in a modern way: the unity of the biblical books and the divine character of their words cannot be grasped by purely historical methods. The historical element is seen in the multiplicity and the humanity. From this perspective one can understand the formulation of a medieval couplet that at first sight appears rather disconcerting: littera gesta docetquid credas allegoria … (cf. Augustine of Dacia, Rotulus pugillaris, I). The letter indicates the facts; what you have to believe is indicated by allegory, that is to say, by Christological and pneumatological exegesis.

We may put it even more simply: Scripture requires exegesis, and it requires the context of the community in which it came to birth and in which it is lived. This is where its unity is to be found, and here too its unifying meaning is opened up. To put it yet another way: there are dimensions of meaning in the word and in words which only come to light within the living community of this history-generating word. Through the growing realization of the different layers of meaning, the word is not devalued, but in fact appears in its full grandeur and dignity. Therefore the Catechism of the Catholic Church can rightly say that Christianity does not simply represent a religion of the book in the classical sense (cf. par. 108). It perceives in the words the Word, the Logos itself, which spreads its mystery through this multiplicity and the reality of a human history. This particular structure of the Bible issues a constantly new challenge to every generation. It excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism. In effect, the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text. To attain to it involves a transcending and a process of understanding, led by the inner movement of the whole and hence it also has to become a process of living. Only within the dynamic unity of the whole are the many books one book. The Word of God and his action in the world are revealed only in the word and history of human beings.

The whole drama of this topic is illuminated in the writings of Saint Paul. What is meant by the transcending of the letter and understanding it solely from the perspective of the whole, he forcefully expressed as follows: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). And he continues: “Where the Spirit is … there is freedom (cf. 2 Cor 3:17). But one can only understand the greatness and breadth of this vision of the biblical word if one listens closely to Paul and then discovers that this liberating Spirit has a name, and hence that freedom has an inner criterion: “The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit is … there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). The liberating Spirit is not simply the exegete’s own idea, the exegete’s own vision. The Spirit is Christ, and Christ is the Lord who shows us the way. With the word of Spirit and of freedom, a further horizon opens up, but at the same time a clear limit is placed upon arbitrariness and subjectivity, which unequivocally binds both the individual and the community and brings about a new, higher obligation than that of the letter: namely, the obligation of insight and love. This tension between obligation and freedom, which extends far beyond the literary problem of scriptural exegesis, has also determined the thinking and acting of monasticism and has deeply marked Western culture. This tension presents itself anew as a challenge for our own generation as we face two poles: on the one hand, subjective arbitrariness, and on the other, fundamentalist fanaticism. It would be a disaster if today’s European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness. Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction.

These paragraphs are a perfect example of what I find at once both so exciting and so infuriating about Pope Benedict’s work: one sentence builds me up to agree emphatically, only to have the next bring to a screeching haltbut then I’m left not knowing what to do when the same point is restated later in terms I find perfectly acceptable. After I’m done reading, I invariably feel exhausted from struggling to keep up with this madness, and I love it. Again, read the whole!

[H/T: Joaquín, whose fascinating blog Majao público I discovered yesterday evening. He blogs on a wide range of subjects, and in the past few of months has produced a number of very interesting posts on the Bible, as well as on Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth and on Jesús Pagola’s book on the historical Jesus, the latter of which has recently stirred some controversy in certain circles in Spain. Here’s hoping for many more such posts!]

6 responses to “The Pope of Rome on the Bible

  1. “Majao” es interesante, y sí pues, Ratzinger hace bien su trabajo poniéndonos en esa tensión de lo “so exciting and so infuriating”. Ratzinger, en su prólogo a “Jesús de Nazaret”, afirma haber tratado de “ir más allá de Schnackenburg”, yo, por mi parte, trataré de ir más allá de su prólogo :)


  2. I think you’d also enjoy The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, apparently largely the work of Ratzinger for the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Pope Ratzinger’s fascination with the subject is longstanding.

    Keep in mind, too, that he writes as a Roman Catholic (and now as Pope, the Roman Catholic) for Roman Catholics, and that in the background are the ideas of people like Küng et alia, which need always to be addressed. I think your frustration will evaporate when seeing even such a writing as his Collège des Bernardins lecture as part of his gentle, yet incisive, and consistent polemic.

    As in the case of our own bishops, his words are not wasted, but have particular purposes in sight, some of which may take some puzzling over to identify them.

    That said, I’ve been a Ratzinger fan for years. In fact, I’m such a fan, I’ve even got a coffee mug: “The Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club: Putting the Smackdown on Heresy Since 1981”!


  3. Esteban,

    I do agree with you that B16 has a tendency to end his thoughts like that. But at least for me, he is far more engaging to read than JPII. Don’t get me wrong, I love JPII, but his style of writing, which was more circular in a sense, drove me nuts some time. I remember a few years ago having to read his “Theology of the Body” for class, and he would continue to return to the same point over and over, while progressing his argument. Its great stuff, but his style was at times tough for me.


  4. Manuel> Yo de veras no entiendo cómo es que a la gente se le hace difícil leer más allá del prólogo del libro. ¡Yo me lo leí enterito en dos días! ;-)

    Joaquín> You're quite welcome! It's always a pleasure to encounter great blogs, and to bring them to others' attention. Looking forward to your future posts!

    Kevin> Yes, I'm acquainted with that fantastic document. Thanks for including a link to it; hopefully others who come across this post will read that as well.

    I did not mean to imply that I find Pope Benedict's writing frustrating, but rather, as Manuel suggests above, that he keeps us in suspense/tension all along, sometimes pulls the rug from under us. This, to me, is a thrill! As I said, I have long enjoyed (and sought out) his works, so I'm in that sense a fan–but, I'm afraid, not as a great a fan as either you or Tim, for I have no relevant paraphernalia, and have never felt the need to get it. ;-)

    Tim> I completely agree with you. I've never quite understood people's fascination with the late Pope John-Paul's writings, anyway. (Perhaps I should clarify I mean the John-Paul the Second and not the First. I find the latter's collection of letters to great historical figures and literary characters, published in English translation under the title Illustrissimi, to be a deep well of simple, joyful wisdom. If his successor is now hailed by many as “John-Paul the Great,” there is every reason, I believe, to hail the good Papa Luciani as “John-Paul the Greater.”)


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