Dietrich von Hildebrand on Legitimate and Illegitimate Forms of Biblical Exegesis

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 improbabilityif not in the impossibilityof 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.

The Prophet Amos and the Resurrection, Part Two

Do Apostolic and patristic exegesis ignore of the historical meaning of Scripture? That is, are they ignorant of such, and if not, do they simply dispense with it? A great many historical-critical interpreters, together with fundamentalist literalists of all stripes, seem to assume one thing or the other, often regarding interpretations like that of St Ireneaus (grounded though it is in that of St Luke) as fanciful flights of the allegorical imagination. To seek a basic answer to this question, let us consider another instance of patristic exegesis of Amos 9:11-12, this time from the pen of St Cyril of Alexandria:

The tabernacle of David means the race of the Jews. It must be known that after Cyrus has freed Israel from captivity, they returned to Judea and built the temple of God. Then, after they had again fortified the cities that had been destroyed before, the lived in security day by day for a long time, that is, for many days and long periods. They became and example and an assurance for all the other nations that it was necessary thereafter to turn to God. . . . This is an explanation of the history of these things, but a more hidden and truer interpretation would be in Christ [ὁ δὲ ἐσωτέρω καὶ αληθέστερος εἴη ἂν ἐν Χριστῷ]. Indeed after he came back to life from the dead in his tabernacle that had fallen into death, that is, after God has raised his earthly flesh, then at that very moment he brought all human things back to their original ordering and all our things that had been overthrown have been brought to a new dignity. For, if as Scripture states, anyone in Christ is a new creation, we have then been raised together with him. So whereas death demolished the tabernacles of all, God the Father rebuilt them in Christ1.

Evidently, St Cyril intends to take full account here of the literal meaning of the text as best he understands it, and does not neglect its exposition. He doesn’t stop there, however, but rather proceeds to explain that a “more hidden and truer meaning [than the historical] would be in Christ.” That such a meaning is “more hidden” (ἐσωτέρω) is hardly disputable, but the suggestion that it is “truer” (αληθέστερος) might give us pause. Let us not imagine, however, that the implication is that the historical meaning is less true than the meaning “in Christ” (and therefore specious); if this were the case, St Cyril would not have occupied himself in its exposition. What he does here is point us in the direction of the Christotelic hermeneutics reflected in the Apostolic use of the Old Testament.

The point that the Fathers, whose interpretation of Scripture was shaped by Apostolic exegesis and stands in continuity with it, would regard the mere historical reading of the text as a puzzling endeavor has been made often. Frances Young, however, goes a step further and forcefully brings this point to bear on the contemporary crisis of historical criticism:

The results of the Fathers’ exegetical methods have often been dismissed because of their so-called disregard of history.  Indeed, the standard English account of Origen’s exegesis virtually organises the material around the view that Origen never really understood the Bible because he sat too loosely to history.  Since that book was written, the shift in biblical studies has helped us to recognise that concern about ‘history’ has a very modern ring.  The Fathers would condemn much modern exegesis for its exclusive focus on the ‘earthly’, and its lack of concern with the ‘heavenly’ dimension of the text.  A reassessment of their assumption that the Bible has a ‘spiritual meaning’ is necessary, as is a review of the procedures whereby they unravelled the symbols discerned in the text.  Debate is needed about potential criteria for distinguishing justifiable and unjustifiable ‘allegory’.  This is important not only for patristic interpretation but also for modern hermeneutics.  Without a form of allegory that at least allows for analogy, the biblical text can can only be an object of archaeological interest.  Recent trends suggest that there is considerable dissatisfaction with the limitations of historico-critical research precisely because it yields no hermeneutic2.

Apostolic and patristic exegesis point the way out of this modernist impasse because they yield the Christotelic hermeneutics which have so often occupied us here. It is crucially important, of course, to learn that St Luke, and both St Irenaeus and St Cyril after him, understand Amos 9:11-12 to be a prophecy of the Resurrection. Those of us who regard Apostolic and patristic exegesis as normative might even be tempted to stop there, since we have already learned the “more hidden, truer meaning” of the passage. I’m afraid that this easy (and frankly, lazy) solution will not do.  We must strive to grasp not only the “what,” but also the “why” and “how” of such an interpretation if we truly wish to honor our commitment. Otherwise, we are ultimately dispensing with our normative exegesis because it will end up having no practical bearing on our reading of Scripture, and as the infallible Moisés Silva reminds us,

If we refuse to pattern our exegesis after that of the apostles, we are in practice denying the authoritative character of their scriptural interpretationand to do so is to strike at the very heart of the Christian faith3.

Of course, the Apostolic exegesis that shaped that of the Fathers did not arise in a vacuum. In the next installment, we will consider another instance of the interpretation of Amos 9:11-12, but this time outside the New Testament.


1 Catenæ græcorum patrum in novum testamentum 3:249-50, quoted in Francis Martin (ed.), Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, vol. 5 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), p. 187.

2 Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), pp. 3-4.

3 Moisés Silva, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Text and Form,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 164.