The topic treated by this work is the problematic relationship between the historical-critical method and theology. Commentaries on Scripture and college courses on the Bible generally skirt the “faith” question and theological aspects of God or Jesus in favor of determining what the biblical texts actually mean in their historical context. The problem has been amply discussed since Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (DV), which restated in a positive way the Catholic Church’s position on Revelation in Scripture—God’s Word in human words.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s opening study, “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict”, (originally presented in 1988 at a conference in New York) offers a brilliant critique of the philosophical presuppositions of the Enlightenment behind most of modern historical-critical exegesis and demonstrates that the problem is not new: the basic issue—the scientific vs. the theological—reaches all the way back to Gregory of Nyssa. Modern exegesis must become aware of and critique the assumptions of such a method that methodically excludes mystery and theology.
It may be helpful, given the unevenness of the essays included, to note this work is a translation of a Spanish work, Escritura e interpretacion (2003). Note that the Spanish original did not include “Joseph Ratzinger”, but obviously Ratzinger’s election as Benedict XVI makes it important. I would immediately add that Ratzinger’s two essays, the opening one and the last, “Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church (originally in Communio, 2003 - an “inclusion”) are both excellent and worthy of translation for this American edition. Complementing Ratzinger’s work and adding other dimensions to the discussion, Ignace de la Potterie’s “Biblical Exegesis: A Science of Faith” and Albert Cardinal Vanhoye’s “The Reception in the Church of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, offer a comprehensive summary of the problem and a possible road map for Catholic exegesis, which José Granados, the editor of the American edition, sketches out (using a conversation with Ratzinger at the 1988 conference) as a new “method C”, beyond “method A" :Patristic and Medieval exegesis, and “method B: historical-critical exegesis. Ratzinger’s talk concludes with five suggestions towards realizing this new method.
Two other essays are interesting case studies of exegesis: Bruna Costacurta, a reading “in faith” of Genesis 2-3, and Klemens Stock, on Christ in contemporary exegesis. But they are not at the same level as the others and could easily have been omitted or replaced by many others. The potentially valuable essay by Paul Beauchamp, “Is a Biblical Theology Possible?” (original: 1998) was for me indecipherable because of the translation. (E.g. biblical theology described as “the last end of our studies”, p.67).
Ignace de la Potterie as a biblical scholar complements Ratzinger’s discussion of the philosophical issues by exploring biblical exegesis as a “science of faith” that goes beyond the letter to the “Spirit” and the mystery that is revealed in Scripture. He (as well as Ratzinger) advocate the “unity of revelation” that involves not only the Old and New Testaments but also a ‘today’, where the Word of God is active within the community of believers.
Albert Vanhoye’s study of Dei Verbum carefully parses the original Latin wording of the decree, demonstrating its continuity with Trent and Vatican I, yet its positive—rather than defense—presentation of the essential unity of Scripture and Tradition. Regarding the “reception” of Vatican II, Catholic exegetes, he says, welcomed what it said about literary genres, but were lest earnest about its invitation to “place themselves in a spiritual perspective” to discover correctly the meaning of the Sacred texts. (p.121) He cites one scholar to summarize a common attitude: the exegete must look only for the human meaning of the text, with the sole criteria of human reason.” However, he concludes on a positive note: recent scholarship is more optimistic about the evolution beyond purely historical study. The other methods and approaches now being used—rhetorical analysis, narrative exegesis—are signs of progress (according to Maurice Gilbert) in the direction of a “more theological exegesis” that is “more spiritual and pastoral (124).