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Reuniting Exegesis and Theology: Toward an Incarnational study of Scripture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 14, 2015

If you have been reading my highlights from Henri de Lubac’s Vatican Council notebooks, you may already have seen this trenchant observation from 1962 by the great twentieth century theologian:

It must be confessed that our exegetes...withdraw into a philological and critical role; they are pure specialists; they do not know how to bring out the doctrines that stem from the Bible or to show its spirit.

Here de Lubac points to a long-standing separation between Biblical exegesis and theology which came about primarily because of the rise of historical-critical methodologies, reaching back to the late seventeenth century. While there is certainly value in the historical study of the Scriptural text, too often this method has carried with it a philosophical secularism. Thus history is viewed as a purely natural process divorced from the actions and intentions of God. As this presupposition grew to predominate by the late 19th century, Biblical scholars became increasingly preoccupied with purely human aspects of the text.

Even when individual Biblical scholars embraced the Faith, their academic profession was increasingly hostile to faith—and also increasingly enamored of whatever the new critical approaches to Scripture might claim. The result was that even many Catholic exegetes chose to restrict themselves to what we might call the natural aspects of the text as given to us by the human author. In de Lubac’s words, they certainly did “withdraw into a philological and critical role” as “pure specialists” with little interest in probing the theological relevance of the text.

Efforts at Correction

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) addressed the breach that had occurred between exegesis and theology by insisting on the importance of both the human and the Divine author. The Council had no wish to utter a blanket condemnation of historical critical studies for the simple reason that Christianity is a preeminently historical religion. It depends on the Incarnation. As the Word became flesh, so did the Word express Himself through particular linguistic forms in particular times and places, which in their turn described the action of this same Word of God in history itself. Clearly, historical study is important to understanding both the Divine plan generally and the manifestations of God’s presence at particular moments.

At the same time, the Council reaffirmed that Scripture and Tradition (which also obviously yields up its meaning through history) are the twin vehicles of Divine Revelation. The goal of exegesis, therefore, is to use whatever human studies are appropriate to illuminate what God intends to reveal. Following the Council, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to flesh out this comprehensive and exquisitely balanced understanding of Scripture.

For example, after the 2008 Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI issued the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (2010). Rejecting both historicism and ahistoricism, the Pope wrote:

In a word, “where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and conversely, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation.” [Verbum Domini #35; quoting an intervention he had made during the Synod itself]

This document rounded out a group of five texts from popes and the Council which were devoted to ensuring that “scientific exegesis” and “spiritual interpretation” were not at odds. They were to be viewed as two indispensable elements in the elucidation of Divine Revelation, which is Incarnational (that is, historical) at its very root. They key texts are: In 1893, Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus; in 1943, Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu; in 1965, Vatican II’s Dei Verbum; in 1993, John Paul II’s “Discourse on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu”; and in 2010 Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.

The real problem, of course, has been the misunderstandings and presuppositions which caused scholars to insist on divorcing Scripture from Faith. Historical critics have tended to presuppose God’s absence from history (and hence His practical non-existence), leading to exclusively natural interpretations. But there have also been fideistic theologians who, partly in reaction, have insisted on deriving their theological principles in an historical vacuum, relying too much on the presuppositions of their own belief systems (as de Lubac often complained with reference to those who dominated the Holy Office). These failed to recognize the importance of rooting theology in the actual Revelation as it had been delivered—in Scripture, in the Incarnate Christ, in Tradition, and in the Patristic evidence of how these were first understood.

Where to Start

Since Pope Benedict’s contribution occurred just five years ago (supplemented by the fine example he gave in his non-Magisterial trilogy Jesus of Nazareth), it ought to be clear that the great divide between exegesis and theology has not yet been healed. Therefore, the question arises as to where one might start to develop a good basic understanding of the issues. My recommendation would be Fr. Scott Carl’s collection of essays by eleven Catholic Biblical scholars on this very topic, published earlier this year by William B. Eerdmans under the title Verbum Domini and the Complementarity of Exegesis and Theology.

This collection of relatively brief and very readable essays—the entire book is just 176 pages long—is divided into two parts. The first part offers five essays on the basic issue, “The Complementarity of Exegesis and Theology”. The second part includes six more essays on “The Word of God in the Formation of Seminarians”. After all, future priests must learn how to do a careful and proper interpretation of Scripture which actually increases the faith of the people they serve. And if that does not make this volume relevant to just about everybody, it is hard to imagine what else would.

I was familiar with some of the authors before reading this book, but here I will mention only Brant Pitre (“Verbum Domini and Historical-Critical Exegesis”) because I recently reviewed his popular book Jesus the Bridegroom. This is itself a masterful demonstration of how the historical critical method can bear delicious spiritual fruit, and the review is readily accessible on CatholicCulture.org (see Each of us is destined to marry Jesus Christ).

I suspect most readers of this new collection of essays will commend Fr. Carl and all eleven authors for their luminous effort to refocus Biblical exegesis on what God has chosen to reveal and how he has chosen to reveal it, as well as to refocus Catholic theology on the actual sources of this Revelation. Without this twofold emphasis, theological theories become just another set of culturally-conditioned abstractions, while Scripture can no longer nourish a living faith.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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