A short visit to a local used books shop earlier today yielded a number of treasures, among them Dietrich von Hildebrand‘s Trojan Horse in the City of God: The Catholic Crisis Explained (1967; reprint, Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1993). Hildebrand (undoubtedly one of the preëminent Roman Catholic thinkers of the 20th century) published this prophetic book almost immediately after the Second Vatican Council, before innumerable and reckless episodes of slaughter were perpetrated in the name of the so-called “spirit of the Council,” and certainly well before their gory aftermath became obvious for all to see. A book like this usually commands my full attention, since it often serves as an urgent cautionary tale for us Orthodox, who are no less tempted by the seductive siren song of “modernity” than our friends of the Roman-Latin confession.
(As an aside, I’m sure that someone out there is bound to dispute my claim above that Hildebrand was one of the preëminent Roman Catholic thinkers of the past century. To them I say that it is not my fault if he is ignored in many contemporary Roman-Latin centers of theological education in North America and elsewhere: after all, surely a place like the Woodstock Theological Center is not called that for nothing.)
In chapter 4 of his book, Hildebrand offers his evaluation of “progressive Catholicism” as a “false and evil reaction” against the perceived “narrowness and legalism of a former age.” Among the subjects he discusses in this connection is the relationship of biblical exegesis to what he calls the “scientific fetishism” of the modern age. Under the subject heading of “Legitimate and Illegitimate forms of scriptural exegesis,” he seeks to “distinguish [the] different aspects” of the exegetical enterprise as follows:
First, there is a scientific exegesis based on philological historical research which attempts to determine the accuracy of translations and texts, the chronology of the different Gospels, the authenticity of parts of the Old Testament, and the like. Second, there is an exegetical criticism which is based on philosophical presuppositions. The evaluation of the historical authenticity of parts of the Gospels is inevitably dependent upon one’s philosophical point of view. Third, there is a specifically religious exegesis which deals, for example, with the meaning of the parables, which delves into the inexhaustible plenitude of the words of Christ.
The first is a real scientific work. Like all historical and philological exploration, this can progress in time. It has, moreover, the character of all strictly scientific undertakings in that it admits and even demands teamwork.
But the second is not in the same sense strictly scientific. If one doubts the authenticity of the miracles of the Lord, philosophical views obviously play a decisive role in one’s doubts. If one asserts that we cannot expect a modern man to believe in the corporeal apparition of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, one’s position is obviously not supported by the first kind of strictly scientific exegesis.
Belief in the improbability—if not in the impossibility—of miracles is not based on scientific findings but on certain philosophical presuppositions. Therefore, there is the constant danger that wrong philosophical views, as well as pervasive contemporary prejudices, may interfere with a man’s ability to discern historical authenticity.
The third type of exegesis is not at all of a scientific order. The value of religious interpretations depends upon the genius of the individual theologian, and especially upon his religious depth and charisma. The interpretation of a Father of the Church, of a saint or a mystic, has much more interest and weight than that of professors of exegesis. A deeper penetration of the unfathomable depth of our Lord’s parables and sayings is not guaranteed by scientific studies, but by the religious intuition of an individual person, as submitted always to the endorsement of the infallible magisterium of the Church. This third aspect of exegesis, like other branches of theology, is thus not scientific even to the moderate extent of the second. It requires men who are at least homines religiosi (religious men) and not mere professors. (pages 46-7)
In spite of my reservations about some points of detail in the last paragraph, I think this is a most helpful way to break down the various aspects of exegesis, as it aids us in parsing some of the statements of confessional exegetes that are more troubling to others. For instance, the patristic notion that merely seeking the “literal meaning” of a text makes for a truncated reading of Scripture is made a little clearer: it would, after all, stop at the level of Hildebrand’s “exegetical criticism” without going on to “religious interpretation.” Likewise, the suggestion that those who stand outside the “hermeneutical circle” (that is, outside the confessing community of faith) are hindered in their reading of Scripture. This refers not to the first two categories, on which non-confessional scholars have demonstrably made significant work that has advanced our knowledge, but again to “religious interpretation.” Finally, the usual objection to the supposed objectivity of historical-critical scholarship is further elucidated by Hildebrand’s distinction between “scientific exegesis” and “exegetical criticism,” which is not often made in critical literature. The main locus of the objection is in Hildebrand’s second category, in which, as he rightly notes, philosophical presuppositions play a pivotal role. (Of course, this is not to say that “scientific exegesis” is itself altogether free of the encumberment of presuppositions, but more on this later: see my forthcoming review of E. J. Epp’s Junia: The First Woman Apostle.)
Hildebrand offers further comments on the subject of exegesis in the following pages, on which I expect to post in the near future.