More Ratzinger

In the last post I provided a brief passage from Joseph Ratzinger’s 1977 work, Eschatology, regarding his approach to exegesis (which I collapsed into historical method). As I noted Ratzinger views history as something alive, not something discrete to be studied like scientific datum. The present cannot be viewed without reference to the past, just as the past cannot be interpreted without taking into account the present, including all subsequent history. Here is more of the same from Ratzinger, but this time with a little more gusto.

The word of Jesus only persists as something heard and received by the Church. After all, it can scarcely enter the historical arena save by being heard and, once heard, assimilated. But all hearing, and so all tradition, is also interpretation…

Accordingly, the Gospel does not confront the Church as a self-enclosed Ding-an-sich [thing in itself]. Herein lies the fundamental methodological error of trying to reconstruct the ipsissima vox Jesu [the very voice of Jesus] as a yardstick for Church and New Testament alike. Realizing this should not turn us into sceptics, even though we are touching here on the limits of historical knowledge. Jesus’ message becomes intellegible for us through the echo effect it has created in history. In this echo, the intrinsic potential of that message, with its various strata and configurations, still resounds. Through its resonance we learn more about the real than we shall ever do from free-floating critical reconstructions…

Only as the actual course of history unfolds does reality fill the [literary] schema [of the gospels] with content and shed light on the meaning and interrelatedness of its various aspects. The fundamental and all-important hermeneutical insight here is that subsequent history belongs intrinsically to the inner momentum of the text itself. That is: it does not simply provide retrospective commentary on the text. Rather, through the appearing of the reality which was still to come, the full dimensions of the word carried by the text come to light. For this reason, the interpretation of these texts must, by its very nature, incomplete. For this reason also, a generation later, John could penetrate in authoritative fashion the depth of the word, and understand what was meant by it with greater purity than could his predecessors. For this reason, once again, his [John’s] own message is not simply a subsequent adaptation of the word to a changed situation, but reproduces the inner movement of the word itself. For this reason, finally, that kind of reconstruction which confines itself to the text in its earliest form and permits interpretation only on that basis is fundamentally out of order… Only through the harvest of historical experience does the word gradually gain its full meaning, and the schema fill itself with reality. In contrast, by insisting on definitive conclusions drawn from the most primitive wording the exegete can reconstruct, one condemns oneself to idling with an empty schematism. And so the reader himself is taken up into the adventure of the word. He can understand it only as a participator, not as a spectator.

As a point of clarification, in the preceding text Ratzinger is bringing up John – as in the Evangelist, John – because of the way John’s gospel is more theologically “robust” than that of the synoptic gospels. Instead of seeing John as re-interpreting the message of Jesus because of a new (and unexpected) situation in the Church (i.e. the end of time had not come), Ratzinger prefers to see John as a continuation of his predecessors and the message of Jesus itself. It was only in time that the full import of the words of Christ began to take hold in the Church. Ratzinger would argue that this is why the other Evangelists do not have the theological understanding of John. It took time for the word to grow in the Church – we could even say that it is growing still. As Ratzinger writes elsewhere, all four gospels must be read “as a choir of four,” no one pited against the others.


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