Dietrich von Hildebrand on Legitimate and Illegitimate Forms of Biblical Exegesis

A short visit to a local used book shop earlier today yielded a number of treasures, among them a copy of Dietrich von Hildebrand‘s Trojan Horse in the City of God: The Catholic Crisis Explained (1967; reprint, Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1993). Hildebrand (without a doubt one of the preëminent Roman Catholic thinkers of the 20th century) published this searing book almost immediately after the Second Vatican Council, before many of the abuses perpetrated in the name of the so-called “spirit of the Council” began to occur, and certainly well before their aftermath became obvious for all to see. This sort of book always commands my full attention, since it often serves as a cautionary tale for us Orthodox, who are no less tempted by the siren song of “modernity” than our friends of the Roman-Latin confession.

In chapter 4 of this 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 find this to be a very helpful way to break down the subject, as it aids us in qualifying certain kinds of statements by confessional exegetes which might prove difficult or even troubling. 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.” 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 is clarified as well: this would refer not to the first two categories, on which non-confessional scholars have demonstrably made significant work that has advanced our knowledge, but again to the realm of “religious interpretation.” Finally, the usual objection to the claimed 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 thrust of this objection belongs to 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 unencumbered by presuppositions!)

Hildebrand offers further comments on the subject of exegesis in the following pages, and perhaps I will be able to comment on this at a later time.

5 responses to “Dietrich von Hildebrand on Legitimate and Illegitimate Forms of Biblical Exegesis

  1. Esteban,

    Thanks for the nice post on Dietrich. I think there are quite a few people, at least within the more conservative Catholic circles, who appreciate his works. I have actually heard his wife speak on a couple of occasions, and she has been a great champion of her late husband. I think lately, particularly with the pontificates of JPII and certainly B16, authors like von Hildebrand, Congar, De Lubac, and Bouyer are getting read more and more. I know that many classes at the seminary I attended, SHMS, used their works.

    BTW: I appreciated your comments on the Ben Witherington Blog about the James Ossuary and how that relates to Catholic/Orthodox belief in the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. I agree that BWIII, who I enjoy reading, was too smug in his comments on the subject, and I honestly don’t think he has seriously taken the time to look at all the evidence about this issue. The texts of Mark 6:3 and Mark 15:40 seem to be overlooked often by some. Someone else mentioned there that the “cousins” argument is the official Catholic positon, which it is not. I don’t believe the Catholic Church has decided on how James is related to Jesus, only that he cannot be his brother from Virgin Mary.


  2. Tim, I think I alluded to that. Perhaps the people at the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli in Rome need to know that their position regarding the relics of St James the Lesser = St James Brother of the Lord = St James of Alphaeus is not official. It’s a longstanding position there. Whatever the modern vagaries of opinion, this still stands as quite an official position, even if it’s simply wrong.

    Ah, Esteban! The infamous “spirit of Vatican II”! This spirit of things to come and go, of strumming the guitars and the felt banners and the sandals and the kumbaya and the polyester pantsuits instead of the proper habits, it would have given Ebenezer Scrooge the greatest fright of all! I’m very happy to see a recovery of the old ways, of the pre-Vatican II liturgy and such (I have a 1962 Missal that brings back good memories of a long-gone Catholic life in America, one that I experienced as a child only just as it was fading away, or rather smothered with a tie-dyed hand-woven hemp pillow!), but it’s too little, too late, I’m afraid. We can chatter away about that offline.


  3. Kevin,

    The CCC does speak of this in paragraphs 499-501 in the section concerning “Mary- ever Virgin”. Its main point is the references in Matthew and Mark, like we have discussed, which show how James and Joses (Joseph) are sons of “the other Mary”. I have found this line of “proof” more engaging than the language about “cousin”, which the CCC only mentioned in passing really. My question is, then, why does the Mark 6:3 and Mark 15:40 passages get dismissed by some who deny the perpetual virginity of Mary? When one puts together this textual evidence, along with others, liike the “cousin” language, then it makes a stronger case in my mind. I do find the final section in the CCC, # 501, on Mary “ever Virgin” charming, since immediately after affirming this Marian belief, it also affirms Mary’s spiritual motherhood which extends to all men. Quoting Lumen Gentium: “The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formulation she cooperates with a mother’s love.”

    (As for the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli in Rome, which I will now visit again in September on my honeymoon, I am not too concerned about that.)


  4. Hi Tim, Yes, that’s because they equate the James and Joses with the James and Joses known to have been Jesus’ brothers, as though two of the most common names of the period really only belonged to those two men.

    But then that gets into the Helvidian position that the Protestants prefer: that the children are those of Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. In that, they’re more motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment than anything else. Don’t expect reason.

    Have a beautiful wedding and honeymoon! Reverence all the saints!


  5. Tim> I am very pleased to hear that the works of the veritable giants your cite (and presumably also of Daniélou, whom you didn’t mention) are part of the standard fare at SHMS. From what I’ve heard about your distinguished alma mater, I would have expected no less.

    As for BW3’s post, as I noted there, it was not my intention to get bogged down in the interminable debate about the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, but rather to call him on his unwarranted and, yes, smug comments suggesting that even if that forgery he feels compelled to defend turns out to be legitimate, that it would pose some kind of insurmountable obstacle to the classical Christian confession of the Mother of God as aeiparthenos. Of course, it would do no such thing. But frankly, I found the crypto-Nestorian christology he articulated in one of his comments much more troubling than his (rather ordinary) rejection of the perpetual virginity.

    I think the confusion of the “Jameses” in Western hagiography has its roots in the General Roman calendar, which, after all, only has feasts for the Apostles James the Greater and James the Lesser. As you know, a similar conflation between Sts Mary Magdalen and St Mary of Bethany, sister of St Lazarus, the one who had been dead four days (and, incidentally, not the “Beloved Disciple”); this too happened, I believe, in connection to the fact that the Roman Calendar has a feast only for St Mary Magadalen.

    And I join Kevin in congratulating you on your upcoming wedding and honeymoon!

    Kevin> I’m quite certain that the terrifying spirit you so aptly describe didn’t visit Ebenezer Scrooge because it would have caused him to have a massive heart attack, thus precluding an opportunity for repentance. And then, what manner of Christmas dinner would poor Tiny Tim have had?

    Anyway, yes, let us chatter offline!


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