Archive for the 'Scripture' Category

Defining the Canon

A list of the works to be considered authoritative began to take form in the Christian community earlier than I had supposed. We always hear that the “definitive” list was not compiled in the 4th century, but less attention is paid to the fact that many of these works were considered authoritative well before then.

In about 180 CE (at almost the same time Irenaeus was defending the four Gospels against Marcion, who wanted to acknowledge Luke alone) there appeared the first listing of the books of the New Testament that bears a similarity with the present Christian canon. The Muratorian canon (as the list came to be known) listed the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters, and the rest of the present New Testament with the omission of Hebrews, James, and the two letters attributed to Peter. The list included, however, the Shepard of Hermas, a popular work of the late first century. No definitive canon was established until the fourth century, and even then there would be disagreement over the Epistle to the Hebrews, but the attempt to form a distinctive Christian canon had begun.

— Robert Bruce Mullin, A Short World History of Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)

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.

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.

Cowboy Logic

Yesterday’s scripture reading from the Morning Prayer made me think about that cowboy logic: I came into this world with next to nothing, and by God’s grace I still have most of it. There is something beautifully simple about it.

The scripture is taken from Job 1:21, 2:10:

Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord! We accept good things from God, and should we not accept evil?

FIRST THINGS Moments of 2008

Moving on from the previous post into the current Year of Our Lord, 2008, here are few of the moments that stood out to me from the pages of FIRST THINGS this past year. Feel free to add any of your own fond memories.

Regarding FT in 2008, there are three things that stand out to me – Joseph Pearce, N. T. Wright, and the death of the Oldline Mainline Protestants here in America.

ft_2008-08First, my dear Joseph Pearce. Back in July I did a post on the shellacking Joseph Pearce took in the pages of the August/September issue of FT. What made this so surprising is FT is a journal that would otherwise be friendly to someone like Pearce. So what did Pearce do to get such sour treatment from a friendly source? It has to do with that all too entangled question of Shakespeare’s religion. I personally don’t think Shakespeare’s religion matters, but there are many (apparently) who do.

In his much publicized book, The Quest for Shakespeare, Pearce clearly wanting to discredit himself right from the start, begins by touting his “Bellocian bellicosity” and distancing himself from the “asses of academe.” Translation: Pearce thinks all those scholars in their ivory towers are arrogant nitwits. Unlike himself, of course.

Robert Miola, professor of English at Loyola College (Maryland), is the culprit behind the aforementioned shellacking. Actually, a careful reading of Miola’s writings in FT regarding the issue of Shakespeare’s religion (see the May 2008 issue of FT) shows that he is somewhat sympathetic to the view that the great Bard of Avon may have been a Catholic (Pearce’s thesis). But if there is one thing Miola can’t stand, it’s arrogant grandstanding by an unproven scholar, such as Pearce, who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. And the way I word it is much nicer than the way Miola does. No kidding. The book review by Miola is really quite stunning – I had my mouth open almost the entire time I was reading it. If you have not read the review, do yourself a favor and read it: Thy Canonized Bones.

And as is the way with peer review journals, Pearce was given the opportunity to defend himself, which he did on the FT blog, On The Square. The rebuttal by Pearce with a response by Miola was included in the latest issue of FT (December 2008). Unfortunately, I can’t link to it since it hasn’t been made public online. However, you can still read Pearce’s rebuttal here.

Second is the “out of nowhere” N. T. Wright / Fr. Neuhaus skirmish that began in April. From what I understand Fr. Neuhaus and N. T. Wright are fairly acquainted with each other and even consider the other to be a friend. So when Neuhaus took to taking cheap shots at Wright in his featured Public Square essay of April 2008, I was taken aback. Now, I say cheap shots, but I am quite sure Fr. Neuhaus doesn’t see it that way. However that may be, I thought the attacks were unfair and so did Wright, understandably.

I call this a skirmish because it didn’t last but for a single follow up exchange in subsequent issue of FT. Thankfully, the whole nasty – and very odd – exchange was quickly dropped, and I can only assume/hope Neuhaus and Wright have since made nice and will continue their good work for the Church, each in their own way.

You can read the original essay by Fr. Neuhaus here: The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop. As much as I say Fr. Neuhuas’ attacks were unfair, he does, not surprisingly, make some good points; but the whole seems to be tainted by the way in which he treats Wright. Wright’s rebuttal and Neuhaus’ response can be found in the June/July 2008 Correspondence section.

And last, but not least, is Joseph Bottum’s lengthy essay entitled The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline – also from the August/September issue of FT. The article generated much discussion with the great majority of the correspondence agreeing with general outline Bottum presents of the death of the Mainline Protestant Churches in America.

You can read this interesting essay by Bottum, here: The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline. The follow up correspondence letters are in the December 2008 issue of FT. As I noted earlier, this issue is not publically available online yet. Give it a couple of months.

So that does it for FT in 2008. I eagerly await the memorable moments that are sure to be in store for 2009.

In the meantime, have a happy Advent!

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

The Nature of Historical Scholarship

Is there a such thing as an purely objective reading of history? I think the obvious answer to this is no, although this does not mean we can learn nothing objective from history. N.T. Wright framed this question quite nicely in Part II of The New Testament and the People of God. In the battle between the naive realist, who believes the historical text through the author provides a window into the objective truth of an event, and the phenomenalist, who believes the historical event is illusory because it is irrevocably filtered through the lens of the author, Wright proposes a third way. On pages 61 and 62 of the 1992 North American edition of The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press), Wright says (emphasis original):

What we need, I suggest, is a critical-realist account of the phenomenon of reading, in all it’s parts. To one side we can see the positivist or the naive realist, who move so smoothly along the line from reader to text to author to referent that they are unaware of the snakes in the grass at every step; to the other side we can see the reductionist who, stopping to look at the snakes, is swallowed up by them and proceeds no further. Avoiding both these paths, I suggest that we must articulate a theory which locates the entire phenomenon of text-reading within an account of the storied and relational nature of human consciousness.

Such a theory might look something like this. We (humans in general; the communities of which you and I, as readers, are part) tell ourselves certain stories about the world, and about who we are within it. Within this story-telling it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we describe ourselves as reading texts; as we have already seen, even deconstructionists themselves write texts which they want others to read to discover what they, the deconstructionists, intend to say. Within this text-reading activity it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we find ourselves, at least sometimes and at least in principle, in contact with the mind and intention of the author. Discussing the author’s mind mat or may not be an easy task; it is in principle both possible and, I suggest, desirable. I for one shall never be convinced that de la Mare did not intend the obvious ‘surface’ effects of his poem, even though the deeper meanings are, as we have seen, a matter of speculation, hypothesis and discussion. He might, for instance, have written about them elsewhere himself. Nor can I believe that the parallel between Leverkuhn and Germany never occured to Mann while he was writing his novel.

At the same time, it is important to stress that both of these authors wanted their readers to think about the subject-matter of their works, not about them as authors for their own sakes. Their work points neither back to the reader nor inside their own heads. They are constructing neither mirrors nor kaleidoscopes. They are offering telescopes (or perhaps microscopes, which are really the same thing): new ways of viewing a reality which is outside, and different from, the reader, text and author alike, though of course vitally related to all three. It this ‘fits’ with the story we tell about ourselves and the world that texts and authors should point to realities in the world, to entities beyond themselves. Only a naive reader would suggest that the only referent of the poem was a horseman and an empty house in a wood, that the only thing described by Mann’s novel was a demon-possessed composer, or that the only reality portrayed in the parable [of the wicked tenants] was a tragic everyday story of grape-farming community…

Wright then goes on to expound a theory which keeps both the naive realist and phenomenalist in mind. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the third way described by Wright, but that’s a topic for another post. The point is that historical inquiry is not simply a matter of reading text and knowing the truth of an event. As Chesterton once quipped, we debate history as much as theology. The interesting question is to what extent can we gain “knowledge” from historical inquiry. Knowledge is gained to be sure, as Wright points out, but what is the nature of this knowledge?

For instance, we can know with a great deal of certainty (or at least probable certainty) that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. but why he crossed the Rubicon, what point was he trying to make, and how this bold move fits in with his psychological makeup are all questions just begging for subjective answers by the historical scholar. But this does not mean we are helpless. There may be other historical texts or archeological findings that help point us toward a conclusion, and this is in indeed the task of the historical scholar, but this does not mean that we will necessarily gain anything like certainty in our historical endevours. Sometimes we will, but not always. And just when probable certainty is reached on any given topic in history is always a matter for debate. For a more in depth handling of this complex topic I really do suggest a careful reading of Part II of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. In fact, while you’re at it, read the whole thing. It’s good from beginning to end.

Glory To You, O Lord

The Canticle from today’s Morning Prayer, taken from I Chronicles 29:10-13:

Blessed may you be, O Lord,
God of Israel our father,
from eternity to eternity.

Yours, O Lord, are grandeur and power,
majesty, splendor, and glory.

For all in heaven and on earth is yours;
yours, O Lord, is the sovereignty:
you are exalted as head over all.

Riches and honors are from you,
and you have dominion over all.
In your hands are power and might;
it is yours to give grandeur and strength to all.

Therefore, our God, we give you thanks
and we praise the majesty of your name.


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