Ratzinger on Historical Method

For some reason, I know not why, I am fascinated by the question of historical knowledge. So what exactly can we “know” from the study of history? I often think that many of us have too bold an epistemology when it comes to history. I was happy to read that Joseph Ratzinger, once Cardinal and now Pope, in the opening pages of his 1977 work Eschatology, lays out his thoughts on the historical method as it relates to exegesis. In typical Catholic fashion he takes a view of history that is more incarnational in nature. Rather than seeing the past as a set of datum to be studied and analyzed, Ratzinger sees the past as part of the present. History is never just history; it is a living history. In Eschatology (Catholic University of America Press, 2007), Ratzinger writes:

It is according to this nonhistorical model of the natural sciences that exegetical results are very largely assessed today. They are thought of as a sum of fixed results, a body of knowledge with immaculate credentials, acquired in such a fashion that it has left behind its own history as a mere prehistory, and is now at our disposal like a set of mathematical measurements. The measuring of the human spirit, however, differs from the quantification of the physical world. To follow the history of exegesis over the last hundred years is to become aware that it reflects the whole spiritual history of that period. Here the observer speaks of the observed only through speaking of himself: the object becomes eloquent only in this indirect refraction. Now this does not mean that at the end of the day all we know is ourselves. Rather are we faced at this point with a kind of knowledge familiar to us from philosophy. (Not that the two are identical, nevertheless, they have a family resemblance.) The “results” of the history of philosophy do not consist in a catalogue of formulae which can be totted up into a final sum. Instead, they are series of raids on the deep places of being, carried out according to the possibilities of their own time. The history in which these explorations were made remains a living history, not a dead prehistory. As philosophizing continues, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas do not become prehistory: they remain the originating figures of an enduring approach to the Ground of what is. In their way of thought, and its access to the Origin, a certain aspect of reality, a dimension of being, is caught as in a mirror. None of them is philsophy or the philosopher.It is the multivalent message of the entire history, and its overall critical evaluation, that truth is disclosed and with it the possibility of fresh knowledge. Something analogous is true of such a foundational text as the Bible. Here, too, and especially where the heart of the scriptural message is concerned, there is no such thing as a definitive acquisition of scholarship: no interpretation from the past is ever completely old hat if in its time it turned to the text in true openess. Unfortunately, historical reason’s criticism of itself is still in its infancy. But one thing is certain: to employ in this domain the pardigm of knowledge characteristic of the natural sciences is fallacious. Only by listening to the whole history of interpretation can the present be purified by criticism and so brought into a position of genuine encounter with the text concerned.

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