Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the
Question of the Foundations
and Approaches of Exegesis Today
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
In Wladimir Solowjew's History of the Antichrist,
the eschatological enemy of the Redeemer recommended himself to believers, among other things, by the fact that
he had earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen and had written an exegetical work which was recognized
as pioneering in the field. The Antichrist, a famous exegete! With this paradox Solowjew sought to shed light on
the ambivalence inherent in biblical exegetical methodology for almost a hundred years now. To speak of the crisis
of the historical-critical method today is practically a truism. This, despite the fact that it had gotten off
to so optimistic a start.
Within that newfound freedom of thought into which the Enlightenment had launched headlong, dogma
or church doctrine appeared as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself. But
freed from this impertinent presupposition, and equipped with a methodology which promised strict objectivity,
it seemed that we were finally going to be able to hear again the clear and unmistakable voice of the original
message of Jesus. Indeed, what had been long forgotten was to be brought into the open once more: the polyphony
of history could be heard again, rising from behind the monotone of traditional interpretations. As the human element
in sacred history became more and more visible, the hand of God, too, seemed larger and closer.
Gradually, however, the picture became more and more confused. The various theories increased
and multiplied and separated one from the other and became a veritable fence which blocked access to the Bible
for all the uninitiated. Those who were initiated were no longer reading the Bible anyway, but were dissecting
it into the various parts from which it had to have been composed. The methodology itself seems to require such
a radical approach: it cannot stand still when it "scents" the operation of man in sacred history. It
must try to remove all the irrational residue and clarify everything. Faith itself is not a component of this method.
Nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events. But since God and divine action permeate the entire
biblical account of history, one is obliged to begin with a complicated anatomy of the scriptural word. On one
hand there is the attempt to unravel the various threads (of the narrative) so that in the end one holds in one's
hands what is the "really historical," which means the purely human element in events. On the other hand,
one has to try to show how it happened that the idea of God became interwoven through it all. And so it is that
another "real" history is to be fashioned in place of the one given. Underneath the existing sources
— that is to say, the biblical books themselves — we are supposed to find more original sources, which in turn
become the criteria for interpretation. No one should really be surprised that this procedure leads to the sprouting
of ever more numerous hypotheses until finally they turn into a jungle of contradictions. In the end, one no longer
learns what the text says, but what it should have said, and by which component parts this can be traced back through
the text. 
Such a state of affairs could not but generate a countereaction. Among cautious systematic theologians,
there began the search for a theology which was as independent as possible from exegesis.  But what possible value can a theology have which is cut off from
its own foundations? So it was that a radical approach called "fundamentalism" began to win supporters
who brand as false in itself and contradictory any application of the historical-critical method to the Word of
God. They want to take the Bible again in its literal purity, just as it stands and just as the average reader
understands it to be. But when do I really take the Bible "literally"? And which is the "normative"
understanding which holds for the Bible in all its particularity? Certainly fundamentalism can take as a precedent
the position of the Bible itself, which has selected as its own hermeneutical perspective the viewpoint of the
"little ones," the "pure of heart."  The problem still remains, however, that the demand for "literalness" and "realism"
is not at all so univocal as it might first appear. In grappling with the problem of hermeneutics, another alternative
process presents itself: the explanation of the historical process of the development of forms is only one part
of the duty of the interpreter; his understanding within the world of today is the other. According to this idea,
one should investigate the conditions for understanding itself in order to come to a visualization of the text
which would get beyond this historical "autopsy."  In fact, as it stands, this is quite correct, for one has not really understood something in its entirety
simply because one knows how to explain the circumstances surrounding its beginning.
But how is it possible to come to an understanding which on one hand is not based on some arbitrary
choice of particular aspects, but on the other hand allows me to hear the message of the text and not something
coming from my own self? Once the methodology has picked history to death by its dissection, who can reawaken it
so that it can live and speak to me? Let me put it another way: if "hermeneutics" is ever to become convincing,
the inner harmony between historical analysis and hermeneutical synthesis must be first found.
To be sure, great strides have already been made in this direction, but I must honestly say that
a truly convincing answer has yet to be formulated. If Rudolph Bultmann used the philosophy of Martin Heidegger as a vehicle to represent the biblical word,
then that vehicle stands in accord with his reconstruction of the essence of Jesus' message. But was this reconstruction
itself not likewise a product of his philosophy? How great is its credibility from a historical point of view?
In the end, are we listening to Jesus, or to Heidegger, with this kind of an approach to understanding? Still,
one can hardly deny that Bultmann seriously grappled with the issue of increasing our access to the Bible's message.
But today, certain forms of exegesis are appearing which can only be explained as symptoms of the disintegration
of interetation and hermeneutics. Materialist and feminist exegesis, whatever else may be said about them, do not
even claim to be an understanding of the text itself in the manner in which it was originally intended. At best
they may be seen as an expression of the view that the Bible's nessage is in and of itself inexplicable, or else
that it is meaningless for life in today's world. In this sense, they are no longer interested in ascertaining
the truth, but only in whatever will serve their own particular agenda. They go on to justify this combination
of agenda with biblical material by saying that the many religious elements help strengthen the vitality of the
treatment. Thus historical method can even serve as a cloak for such maneuvers insofar as it dissects the Bible
into discontinuous pieces, which are then able to be put to new use and inserted into a new montage altogether
different from the original biblical ontext. 
The Central Problem
Naturally, this situation does not occur everywhere with the same starkness. The methods are
often applied with a good deal of prudence, and the radical hermeneutics of the kind I have just described have
already been disavowed by a large number of exegetes. In addition, the search for remedies for basic errors of
modern methods has been going on for some time now. The scholarly search to find a better synthesis between the
historical and theological methods, between higher criticism and church doctrine, is hardly a recent phenomenon.
This can be seen from the fact that hardly anyone today would assert that a truly pervasive understanding of this
whole problem has yet been found which takes into account both the undeniable insights uncovered by the historical
method, while at the same time overcoming its limitations and disclosing them in a thoroughly relevant hermeneutic.
At least the work of a whole generation is necessary to achieve such a thing. What follows, therefore, will be
an attempt to sketch out a few distinctions and to point out a few first steps that might be taken toward an eventual
There should be no particular need to demonstrate that on the one hand it is useless to take
refuge in an allegedly pure, literal understanding of the Bible. On the other hand, a merely positivistic and rigid
ecclesiasticism would not do either. Just to challenge individual theories, especially the more daring and dubious
ones, is likewise insufficient. Likewise dissatisfying is the middle-ground position of trying to pick out in each
case as soon as possible the answers from modern exegesis which are more in keeping with tradition. Such foresight
may sometimes prove profitable, but it does not grasp the problem at its root and in fact remains somewhat arbitrary
if it cannot make its own arguments intelligible. In order to arrive at a real solution, we must get beyond disputes
over details and press on to the foundations. What we need might be called a criticism of criticism. By this I
mean not some exterior analysis, but a criticism based on the inherent potential of all critical thought to analyze
We need a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical
reason itself, in continuity with and in development of the famous critique of reason by Immanuel Kant. Let me
assure you at once that I do not presume to accomplish so vast an undertaking in the short time we have together.
But we must make some start, even if it is by way of just preliminary explorations in what is still a largely uncharted
land. The self-critique of historical method would have to begin, it seems, by reading its conclusions in a diachronic
manner so that the appearence of a quasi-clinical-scientific certainty is avoided. It has been this appearance
of certainty which has caused its conclusions to be accepted so far and wide.
In fact, at the heart of the historical-critical method lies the effort, to establish in the
field of history a level of methodological precision which would yield conclusions of the same certainty as in
the field of the natural sciences. But what one exegete takes as definite can only be called into question by other
exegetes. This is a practical rule which is presupposed as plainly and self-evidently valid. Now, if the natural
science model is to be followed without hesitation, then the importance of the Heisenberg principle should be applied
to the historical-critical method as well. Heisenberg has shown that the outcome of a given experiment is heavily
influenced by the point of view of the observer. So much is this the case that both observer's questions and observations
continue to change themselves in the natural course of events.  When applied to the witness of history, this means that interpretation can never be just a simple reproduction
of history's being, "as it was." The word "interpretation" gives us a clue to the question
itself: every exegesis requires an "inter" an entering in and a being "inter" or between things;
this is the involvement of the interpreter himself. Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It is not the uninvolved
who comes to knowledge; rather, interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.
Here, then, is the question: how does one come to be interested, not so that the self drowns
out the voice of the other, but in such a way that one develops a kind of inner understanding for things of the
past, and ears to listen to the word they speak to us today? 
This principle which Heisenberg enunciated for experiments in the natural sciences has a very
important application to the subject-object relationship. The subject is not to be neatly isolated in a world of
its own apart from any interaction. One can only try to put it in the best possible state. This is all the more
the case with regard to history since physical processes are in the present and repeatable. Moreover, historical
processes deal with the impenetrability and the depths of the human being himself, and are thus even more susceptible
to the influence of the perceiving subject than are natural events. But how are we to reconstruct the original
historical context of a subject from the clues which survive?
We need to introduce at this point what I have already called the diachronic approach to exegetical
findings. After about two hundred years now of exegetical work on the texts, one can no longer give all their results
equal weight. Now one has to look at them within the context of their particular history. It then becomes clear
that such a history is not simply one of progress from imprecise to precise and objective conclusions. It appears
much more as a history of subjectively reconstructed interrelationships whose approaches correspond exactly to
the developments of spiritual history. In turn, these developments are reflected in particular interpretations
of texts. In the diachronic reading of an exegesis, its philosophic presuppositions become quite apparent. Now,
at a certain distance, the observer determines to his surprise that these interpretations, which were supposed
to be strictly and purely "historical," reflect their own overriding spirit, rather than the spirit of
times long ago. This insight should not lead us to skepticism about the method, but rather to an honest recognition
of what its limits are, and perhaps how it might be purified.
A Self-Criticism of the Historical-Critical Method on the Model of How the
Method was Taught by Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann
In order not to let the general rules of the method and their presuppositions remain altogether
abstract, I would like to try to illustrate what I have been saying thus far with an example. I am going to follow
here the doctoral dissertation written by Reiner Blank at the University of Basel, entitled "Analysis and
Criticism of the Form-Critical Works of Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann."  This book seems to me to be a fine example of a self-critique of the historical-critical method. This
kind of self-critical exegesis stops building "conclusions" on top of conclusions, and from constructing
and opposing hypotheses. It looks for a way to identify its own foundations and to purify itself by reflections
on those foundations. This does not mean that it is pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. On the contrary, by
a process of self-limitation, it marks out for itself its own proper space. It goes without saying that the form-critical
works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details.
But it is likewise true that their basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods
and procedures of modern exegesis. Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological
judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.
For Dibelius, as with Bultmann, it was a matter of overcoming the arbitrary manner in which the
preceding phase of Christian exegesis, the so-called "Liberal Theology," had been conducted. This was
imbued with judgments about what was "historical" or "unhistorical." Both these scholars then
sought to establish strict literary criteria which would reliably
clarify the process by which the texts themselves were developed, and would thus provide a true picture of the
tradition. With this outlook, both were in search of the pure form and of the rules which governed the development
from the initial forms to the text as we have it before us today. As is well known, Dibelius proceeded from the
view that the secret of history discloses itself as one sheds light on its development.  But how does one arrive at this first premise and to the ground
rules for further development? Even with all their particular differences, one can discover here a series of fundamental
presuppositions common to both Dibelius and Bultmann and which both considered trustworthy beyond question. Both
proceed from the priority of what is preached over the event in itself: in the beginning was the Word. Everything
in the Bible develops from the proclamation. This thesis is so promoted by Bultmann that for him only the word
can be original: the word generates the scene. 
All events, therefore, are already secondary, mythological developments.
And so a further axiom is formulated which has remained fundamental for modern exegesis since
the time of Dibelius and Bultmann: the notion of discontinuity. Not only is there no continuity between the pre-Easter
Jesus and the formative period of the Church; discontinuity applies to all phases of the tradition. This is so
much the case that Reiner Blank could state, "Bultmann wanted incoherence at any price." 
To these two theories, the pure originality of the simple word and the discontinuity between
the particular phases of development, there is joined the further notion that what is simple is original, that
what is more complex must be a later development. This idea affords an easily applied parameter to determine the
stages of development: the more theologically considered and sophisticated a given text is, the more recent it
is, and the simpler something is, the easier it is to reckon it original.  The criterion according to which something is considered more or less developed, however, is not at all
so evident as it first seems. In fact, the judgment essentially depends upon the theological values of the individual
exegete. There remains considerable room for arbitrary choice.
First and foremost one must challenge that basic notion dependent upon a simplistic transferal
of science's evolutionary model to spiritual history. Spiritual processes do not follow the rule of zoological
genealogies. In fact, it is frequently the opposite: after a great breakthrough, generations of descendants may
come who reduce what was once a courageous new beginning to an academic commonplace. They bury it and disguise
it by all kinds of variations of the original theory until it finally comes to have a completely different application
One can easily see how questionable the criteria have been by using a few examples. Who would
hold that Clement of Rome is more developed or complex than Paul? Is James any more advanced than the Epistle to
the Romans? Is the Didache more encompassing than the Pastoral Epistles? Take a look at later times: whole generations
of Thomistic scholars have not been able to take in the greatness of his thought. Lutheran orthodoxy is far more
medieval than was Luther himself. Even between great figures there is nothing to support this kind of developmental
Gregory the Great, for example, wrote long after Augustine, and knew of him, but for Gregory,
the bold Augustinian vision is translated into the simplicity of religious understanding. Another example: what
standard could one use to determine whether Pascal should be classified as before or after Descartes? Which of
their philosophies should be mentioned to illustrate the whole of human history. All judgments based on the theory
of discontinuity in the tradition and on the assertion of an evolutionary priority of the "simple" over
the "complex" can thus be immediately called into question as lacking foundation.
But now we must explain in an even more concrete way what criteria have been used to determine
what is "simple." In this regard there are standards as to form and content. In terms of form, the search
was for the original forms. Dibelius found them in the so-called "paradigm," or example narrative in
oral tradition, which can be reconstructed behind the proclamation. Later forms, on the other hand, would be the
"anecdote," the "legend," the collections of narrative materials, and the "myth."
Bultmann saw the pure form in the "apothegm," "the original specific fragment
which would sum things up concisely; interest would be concentrated on the word [spoken by] Jesus at the end of
a scene; the details of the situation would lie far from this kind of form; Jesus would never come across as the
initiator . . . everything not corresponding to this form Bultmann attributed to development."  The arbitary nature of these assessments which would characterize
theories of development and judgments of authenticity from now on is only obvious. To be honest, though, one must
also say that these theories are not so arbitrary as they may first appear. The designation of the "pure form"
is based on a loaded idea of what is original, which we must now put to the test.
One element of it is what we have just encountered: the thesis of the priority of the word over
the event. But this thesis conceals two further pairs of opposites: the pitting of word against cult, and eschatology
against apocalyptic. In close harmony with these is the antithesis between Judaic and Hellenistic. Hellenistic
was, for example, in Bultmann, the notion of the cosmos, the mystical worship of the gods, and cultic piety. The
consequence is simple: what is a Hellenistic cannot be Palestinian, and therefore it cannot be original. Whatever
has to do with cult, cosmos, or mystery must be rejected as a later development. The rejection of "apocalyptic,"
the alleged opposite of eschatology, leads to yet another element: the supposed antagonism between the prophetic
and the "legal", and thus between the prophetic and the cosmic and cultic. It follows, then, that ethics
is seen as incompatible with the eschatological and the prophetic. In the beginning there was no ethics, but simply
an ethos.  What is surely at work is the
by-product of Luther's fundamental distinction: the dialectic between the law and the gospel. According to this
dialectic, ethics and cult are to be relegated to the realm of the law, and put in dialectical contrast with Jesus,
who, as bearer of the Good News, brings the long line of promise to completion and thus overcomes the law. If we
are ever to understand modern exegesis and critique it correctly, we simply must return and reflect anew on Luther's
view of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. In place of the analogy model which was then current,
he substituted a dialectical structure.
However, for Luther all of this remained in a very delicate balance, whereas for Dibelius and
Bultmann the whole degenerates into a developmental scheme of well-nigh intolerable simplicity even if this has
contributed to its attractiveness.
With these presuppositions, the picture of Jesus is determined in advance. Thus Jesus has to
be conceived in strongly "Judaic" terms. Anything "Hellenistic" has to be removed from him.
All apocalyptic, sacramental, mystical elements have to be pruned away. What remains is a strictly "eschatological"
prophet, who really proclaims nothing of substance. He only cries out "eschatologically" in expectation
of the "wholly other," of that transcendence which he powerfully presents before men in the form of the
imminent end of the world.
From this view emerged two challenges for exegesis: it had to explain how one got from the unmessianic,
unapocalyptic, prophetic Jesus to the apocalyptic community which worshiped him as Messiah; to a community in which
were united Jewish eschatology, stoic philosophy, and mystery religion in a wondrous syncretism. This is exactly
how Bultmann described early Christianity. 
The second challenge consists in how to connect the original message of Jesus to Christian life
today, thus making it possible to understand his call to us.
According to the developmental model, the first problem is relatively easy to solve in principle,
even though an immense amount of scholarship had to be dedicated to working out the details. The agent responsible
for the contents of the New Testament was not to be found in persons, but in the collective, in the "community."
Romantic notions of the "people" and of its importance in the shaping of traditions play a key role here.
 Add to this the thesis of Hellenization
and the appeal to the history-of-religions school. The works of Gunkel and Bousset exerted decisive influence in
this area.  The second problem was more
difficult. Bultmann's approach was his theory of demythologization, but this did not achieve quite the same success
as his theories on form and development. If one were allowed to characterize somewhat roughly Bultmann's solution
for a contemporary appropriation of Jesus' message, one might say that the scholar from Marburg had set up a correspondence
between the nonapocalyptic-prophetic and the fundamental thought of the early Heidegger. Being a Christian, in
the sense Jesus meant it, is essentially collapsed into that mode of existing in openness and alertness which Heidegger
described. The question has to occur whether one cannot come by some simpler way to such general and sweeping formal
Still, what is of interest to us here is not Bultmann the systematician, whose activities came
to an abrupt halt in any case with the rise of Marxism. Instead, we should examine Bultmann the exegete who is
responsible for an ever more solid consensus regarding the methodology of scientific exegesis.
The Philosophic Source of the Method
At this point the question arises, how could Dibelius's and Bultmann's essential categories for
judgment — that is, the pure form, the opposition between apocalyptic and eschatology and so on — present such
evidence to them, that they believed they had at their disposal the perfect instrument for gaining a knowledge
of history? Why, even today in large part, is this system of thought taken without question and applied? Since
then, most of it has simply become an academic commonplace, which precedes individual analysis and appears to be
legitimized almost automatically by application. But what about the founders of the method? Certainly, Dibelius
and Bultmann already stood in a tradition. Mention has already been made of their dependence on Gunkel and Bousset.
But what was their dominant idea? With this question, the self-critique of the historical method passes over to
a self-criticism of historical reason, without which our analysis would get stuck in superficialities.
In the first place, one can note that in the history-of-religions school, the model of evolution
was applied to the analysis of biblical texts. This was an effort to bring the methods and models of the natural
sciences to bear on the study of history. Bultmann laid hold of this notion in a more general way and thus attributed
to the so-called scientific worldview a kind of dogmatic character. Thus, for example, for him the nonhistoricity
of the miracle stories was no question whatever anymore. The only thing one needed to do yet was to explain how
these miracle stories came about. On one hand the introduction of the scientific worldview was indeterminate and
not well thought out. On the other hand, it offered an absolute rule for distinguishing between what could have
been and what had to be explained only by development. To this latter category belonged everything which is not
met with in common daily experience. 
There could only have been what now is. For everything else, therefore, historical processes
are invented, whose reconstruction became the particular challenge of exegesis.
But I think we must go yet a step further in order to appeciate the fundamental decision of the
system which generated these particular categories for judgment. The real philosophic presupposition of the whole
system seems to me to lie in the philosophic turning point proposed by Immanuel Kant. According to him, the voice
of being-in-itself cannot be heard by human beings. Man can hear it only indirectly in the postulates of practical
reason which have remained as it were the small opening through which he can make contact with the real, that is,
his eternal destiny. For the rest, as far as the content of his intellectual life is concerned, he must limit himself
to the realm of the categories. Thence comes the restriction to the positive, to the empirical, to the "exact"
science, which by definition excludes the appearance of what is "wholly other," or the one who is wholly
other, or a new initiative from another plane.
In theological terms, this means that revelation must recede into the pure formality of the eschatological
stance, which corresponds to the Kantian split. 
As far as everything else is concerned, it all needs to be "explained." What might otherwise seem like
a direct proclamation of the divine, can only be myth, whose laws of develoment can he discovered. It is with this
basic conviction that Bultmann, with the majority of modern exegetes, read the Bible. He is certain that it cannot
be the way it is depicted in the Bible, and he looks for methods to prove the way it really had to be. To that
extent there lies in modern exegesis a reduction of history into philosophy, a revision of history by means of
The real question before us then is, can one read the Bible any other way? Or perhaps better,
must one agree with the philosophy which requires this kind of reading? At its core, the debate about modern exegesis
is not a dispute among historians: it is rather a philosophical debate. Only in this way can it be carried on correctly.
Otherwise it is like a battle in a mist. The exegetical problem is identical in the main with the struggle for
the foundations of our time. Such a struggle cannot be conducted casually, nor can it be won with a few suggestions.
It will demand, as I have already intimated, the attentive and critical commitment of an entire generation. It
cannot simply retreat back to the Middle Ages or to the Fathers and place them in blind opposition to the spirit
of the present age. But neither can it renounce the insights of the great believers of the past and pretend that
the history of thought seriously began only with Kant.
In my opinion the more recent debate about biblical hermeneutics suffers from just such a narrowing
of our horizon. One can hardly dismiss the exegesis of the Fathers by calling it mere "allegory" or set
aside the philosophy of the Middle Ages by branding it as "precritical."
The Basic Elements of a New Synthesis
After these remarks on the challenge of a self-critique of the historical method, we now find
ourselves confronted with the positive side of the problem, how to join its tools with a better philosophy which
would entail fewer drawbacks foreign to the text which would be less arbitrary, and which would offer greater possibilities
for a true listening to the text itself. The positive task is without a doubt even more difficult than the critical
one. I can only try to conclude these remarks by trying to carve out a few narrow footpaths in the thicket, which
may perhaps point out where the main road lies and how it is to be found.
In the midst of the theological, methodological debate of his day, Gregory of Nyssa called upon
the rationalist Eunomius not to confuse theology with the science of nature. (Theologein is not physiologein.)
mystery of theology is one thing," he said, "the
scientific investigation of nature is quite another." One cannot then "encompass the unembraceable nature of God in the palm of a child's hand." Gregory was here alluding to one of the famous sayings of Zeno: "The open hand is perception, the clapping hand is the agreement of the intellect, the hand fully
closed upon something is the recording of judgment, the one hand clasped by the other is systematic science." 
Modern exegesis, as we have seen, completely relegated God to the incomprehensible, the otherworldly
and the inexpressible in order to be able to treat the biblical text itself as an entirely worldly reality according
to natural-scientific methods.
Contrary to the text itself, physiologein
is practiced. As a "critical science," it claims
an exactness and certitude similar to natural science. This is a false claim because it is based upon a misunderstanding
of the depth and dynamism of the word. Only when one takes from the word its own proper character as word and then
stretches it onto the screen of some basic hypothesis can one subject it to such exact rules. Romano Guardini commented
in this regard on the false certainty of modern exegesis, which he said "has
produced very significant individual results, but has lost sight of its own particular object and generally has
ceased being theology."  The sublime thought of Gregory of Nyssa remains a true guidepost today: "these gliding and glittering lights of God's word which sparkle over the eyes of the soul . . .
but now let what we hear from Elijah rise up to our soul and would that our thoughts, too, might be snatched up
into the fiery chariot . . . so we would not have to abandon hope of drawing close to these stars, by which I mean
the thoughts of God . . . " 
Thus the word should not be submitted to just any kind of enthusiasm. Rather, preparation is
required to open us up to the inner dynamism of the word. This is possible only when there is a certain "sym-pathia"
or understanding, a readiness to learn something new, to allow oneself to be taken along a new road. It is not
the closed hand which is required, but the opened eye . . .
Thus the exegete should not approach the text with a ready-made philosophy, nor in accordance
with the dictates of a so-called modern or "scientific" worldview, which determines in advance what may
or may not be. He may not exclude a priori that (almighty) God could speak in human words in the world, He may
not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human history, however improbable such a thing might
at first appear.
He must be ready to learn from the extraordinary. He must be ready to accept that the truly original
may occur in history, something which cannot be derived from precedents, but which opens up out of itself.  He may not deny to humanity the ability to be responsive
beyond the categories of pure reason, and to reach beyond ourselves towards the open and endless truth of being.
We must likewise reexamine the relationship between event and word. For Dibelius, Bultmann, and
the mainstream of modern exegesis, the event is the irrational element. It lies in the realm of mere facticity,
which is a mixture of accident and necessity. The fact as such, therefore, cannot be a bearer of meaning. Meaning
lies only in the word, and where events might seem to bear meaning, they are to be considered as illustrations
of the word to which they have to be referred. Judgments which derive from such a point of view are certainly persuasive
for people of today, since they fit nicely into their own patterns of expectations. There is, however, no evidence
in reality to support them. Such evidence is admissible only under the presupposition that the principle of scientific
method, namely that every effort which occurs can be explained in terms of purely immanent relationships within
the operation itself, is not only valid methodologically but is true in and of itself. Thus, in reality there would
be only "accident and necessity," nothing else, and one may only look upon these elements as brute facts.
But, what is useful as a methodological principle for the natural sciences is a foregone banality
as a philosophical principle; and as a theological principle it is a contradiction. (How can any or all of God's
activity be considered either as accidental or necessary?) It is here, for the sake of scientific curiosity, too,
that we must experiment with the precise contrary of this principle, namely, that things can indeed be otherwise.
To put it another way: the event itself can be a "word," in accord with the biblical
word terminology itself.  From this flow
two important rules for interpretation.
a) First, both word and event have to be considered equally original, if one wishes to remain
true to the biblical perspective. The dualism which banishes the event into wordlessness, that is meaninglessness,
would rob the word of its power to convey meaning as well, for it would then stand in a world without meaning.
It also leads to a docetic Christology in which the reality, that is the concrete fleshly existence
of Christ and especially of man, is removed from the realm of meaning. Thus the essence of the biblical witness
fails of its purpose.
b) Secondly, such a dualism splits the biblical word off from creation and would substitute the
principle of discontinuity for the organic continuity of meaning
which exists between the Old and New Testaments. When the continuity between word and event is allowed to disappear,
there can no longer be any unity within the Scripture itself. A New Testament cut off from the Old is automatically
abolished since it exists, as its very title suggests, because of the unity of both. Therefore the principle of
discontinuity must be counterbalanced by the interior claim of the biblical text itself, according to the principle
of the analogia scripturae: the mechanical principle must be
balanced by the teleological principle. 
Certainly texts must first of all be traced back to their historical origins and interpreted
in their proper historical context. But then, in a second exegetical operation, one must look at them also in light
of the total movement of history and in light of history's central event, Jesus Christ. Only the combination of both these methods will yield understanding of the Bible. If
the first exegetical operation by the Fathers and in the Middle Ages is found to be lacking, so too is the second,
since it easily falls into arbitrariness. Thus, the first was fruitless, but the rejection of any coherence of
meaning leads to an opinionated methodology.
To recognize the inner self-transcendence of the historical word, and thus the inner correctness
of subsequent rereadings in which event and meaning are gradually interwoven, is the task of interpretation properly
so-called, for which appropriate methods can and must be found. In this connection, the exegetical maxim of Thomas
Aquinas is quite to the point: "The duty of every good interpreter
is to contemplate not the words, but the sense of the words." 
In the last hundred years, exegesis has had many great achievements, but it has brought forth
great errors as well. These latter, moreover, have in some measure grown to the stature of academic dogmas. To
criticize them at all would be taken by many as tantamount to sacrilege, especially if it were to be done by a
non-exegete. Nevertheless, so prominent an exegete as Heinrich Schlier previously warned his colleagues: "Do not squander your time on trivialities."  Johann Gnilka gave concrete expression to this warning
when he reacted against an exaggerated emphasis by the history-of-traditions school. 
Along the same lines, I would like to express the following hopes:
a) The time seems to have arrived for a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method. Scientific
exegesis must recognize the philosophic element present in a great number of its ground rules, and it must then
reconsider the results which are based on these rules.
b) Exegesis can no longer be studied in a unilinear, synchronic fashion, as is the case with
scientific findings which do not depend upon their history, but only upon the precision of their data. Exegesis
must recognize itself as an historical discipline. Its history belongs to itself. In a critical arrangement of
its respective positions within the totality of its own history, it will be able, on one hand, to recognize the
relativity of its own judgments (where, for example, errors may have crept in). On the other hand, it will be in
a better position to achieve an insight into our real, if always imperfect, comprehension of the biblical word.
c) Philological and scientific literary methods are and will remain critically important for
a proper exegesis. But for their actual application to the work of criticism — just as for an examination of their
claims — an understanding of the philosophic implications of the interpretative process is required. The self-critical
study of its own history must also imply an examination of the essential philosophic alternatives for human thought.
Thus, it is not sufficient to scan simply the last one hundred and fifty years. The great outlines of patristic
and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion. It is equally indispensable to reflect on the fundamental
judgments made by the Reformers and the critical importance they have had in the history of exegesis.
d) What we need now are not new hypotheses on the Sitz im Leben, on possible sources or on the subsequent process of handing down the material. What we do need is a critical look at the exegetical landscape we now have, so that
we may return to the text and distinguish between those hypotheses which are helpful and those which are not. Only
under these conditions can a new and fruitful collaboration between exegesis and systematic theology begin. And
only in this way will exegesis be of real help in understanding the Bible.
e) Finally, the exegete must realize that he, does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside
history and the Church. Such a presumed immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends. The
first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible as a book. In so doing, it has already chosen
a place for itself which does not simply follow from the study of literature. It has identified this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and this history
as the proper space for coming to understanding. If it wishes to be theology, it must take a further step. It must
recognize that the faith of the Church is that form of "sympathia" without which the Bible remains a
closed book. It must come to acknowledge this faith as a hermeneutic,
the space for understanding, which does not do dogmatic violence to the Bible, but precisely allows the solitary
possibility for the Bible to be itself.
Lecture delivered on 27th January 1988 at Saint Peter's Church in New York,
1. With refreshing directness and yet with impressive literary ability, C. S. Lewis describes
this situation in his Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity, ed. W. Hooper , (Fontana/Collins,
1975). German title: Was der Laie blökt, Christliche Diagnosen (Einsiedeln, 1977), esp. pp. 11-35. For reflections
on the problem which are based upon a broad knowledge of the subject, see also E. Kästner, Die Stundentrommel
vom heiligen Berg Athos (Inselverlag, 1956). Significant also for an analysis of the situation is J. Guitton, Silence
sur 1'essentiel (Desclée, 1986), pp. 47-58. W. Kümmel's Das Neue Testament, Geschichte der Erforschung
seiner Probleme (Freiburg, 1958) also is suitable for a review of the history of historical-critical exegesis.
2. On the evangelical side, P. Tillich's Systematische Theologie (Stuttgart, 1956; reprint,
1966) can serve as an example. For it — this is not an approximation — the author's index for all three volumes
claims but a scant two pages. On the Catholic side, Rahner in his later years came to consider theology, as in
the case of Grundkurs des Glaubens (Freiburg, 1976), as quite independent from exegesis (cf., for example, p. 25).
3. Cf. J Guitton, Silence sur l'essentiel, p. 56 ff.; R. Guardini, Das Christusbild der
paulinischen und johanneischen Schriften (Wurzburg, 1961), p. 15.
4. Kästner (Die Stundentrommel, p. 121) puts it this way; he thereby made use of the
thought of L. Kolakowski, Die Gegenwärtigkeit des Mythos (Munich, 1973), p. 95f.
5. This is evidenced especially by a look at the works of P. Ricoeur, e.g., Hermeneutik
und Strukturalismus 1 (1973); Hermeneutik und Psychoanalyse (1974). P. Stuhlmacher offers a useful perspective
and orientation for the present state of the question with his Vom Verstehen des Neuen Testaments. Eine Hermenuetik
(Göttingen, 1986). Important attempts can moreover be found in P. Toinet, Pour une théologie de 1'exégèse
(preface, I. de la Potterie. Paris, 1983); R. Laurentin, Comment réconcilier 1'exégèse et
la foi (Paris, 1984); P. Grech, Ermeneutica e Teologia biblica (Rome, 1986); P. Grelot, Evangiles et histoire (Desclée,
1985). Tübingen's Die Theologische Quartalschrift dedicated an entire issue in 1970 (pp. 1-71) to the discussion
of this question in the form of a debate over the contribution of J. Blank, Exegese als theologische Basiswissenschaft
(pp. 2-23). Unfortunately, this contribution is not productive, for it appears to trace the problems arising from
exegesis ultimately back to a dogmatism which has not yet arrived at the heights of historical thought.
6. Characteristic of this are the new forms of materialist and feminist interpretation
of the Scriptures. Cf., for example, K. Füssel, "Materialistische Lektüre der Bibel," in Theologische
Berichte, vol. 13, Methoden der Evangelien-Exegese (Einsiedeln, 1985), pp. 123-63.
7. Cf. W. Heisenberg, Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1955), esp.
8. I am referring here to P. Stuhlmacher (Vom Verstehen). He gives his own response to
the problems in a "Hermeneutik des Einverständnisses mit den biblischen Texten," pp. 222-56.
9. Bo Reicke, ed., Theologische Dissertationen, vol. 16 (Basel, 1981).
10. Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis," p. 72. In opposition to him one finds E. Kästner
(Die Stundentrommel, p. 120), who speaks about "Aberglauben . . .
es sei alles und jedes aus seinen Entstehungen zu verstehen . . ."
11. Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis, " p. 97.
12. Ibid., p. 154.
13. Cf. ibid., pp. 89-183. Characteristic of the practical and general acceptance of this
standard — to cite only one example — is the uncritical way in which L. Oberlinner takes it for granted that the
"reflection [is] doubtlessly earlier [in contradistinction to Paul],
exemplified in the ecclesiology and eschatology" which he sees present in the synoptic
gospels and which he proposes as a criterion for dating. (Review of J. Carmignac, "La naissance des Evangiles
Synoptiques" [Paris, 1984], in Theologische Revue 83 :194.) What is the criterion according to which
one reflection is to be designated as more and another as less developed? Presumably it still depends upon the
perspective of the observer. And even if the standard proves correct, who can show that there follows from it an
"earlier" corresponding to a "later"?
14. R. Blank, "Analysis, " pp. 11-46.
15. Ibid., p. 98.
16. M. Dibelius, "Die Unbedingtheit des Evangeliums und die Bedingtheit der Ethik"
in Christliche Welt 40 (1926): cols. 1103-1120, esp. 1107 and 1109; by the same author, Geschichtliche und übergeschichtliche
Religion im Christentum (Göttingen, 1925); cf., in addition, R. Blank, "Analysis," pp. 66-71.
17. Cf. R. Bultmann, Urchristentum (Zürich, 1954), esp. p. 101ff.; cf. R. Blank, "Analysis,"
18. Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis," pp. 111, 175.
19. Cf. W. Klatt, Hermann Gunkel, Zu seiner Theologie der Religionsgeschichte und zur Entstehung
der formgeschichtlichen Methode (1969).
20. Cf. the questions raised in the debate over demythologization. The most significant
contributions to this discussion are assembled in the five volumes edited by H. W. Bartsch, Kerygma und Mythos
21. Brilliant analyses in this regard may be found in Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels:
Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, New York, 1969). Just one citation here: "The present, however, remains strangely immune from relativization. In other words, the
New Testament writers are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness rooted in their time, but the contemporary
analyst takes the consciousness of his time as an unmixed intellectual blessing. The electricity and radio users
are placed intellectually above the Apostle Paul" (p. 41). For the question concerning
the worldview, there are important considerations in H. Gese, Zur biblischen Theologie (Munich, 1977), pp. 202-22.
22. Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis, " p. 137: "Die Ungeschichtlichkeit der Wundergeschichten
war für ihn (= Bultmann) keine Frage." On the Kantian, philosophical background and for a critique of
it, cf. J. Zoharer, Der Glaube an die Freiheit und der historische Jesus, Eine Untersuchung der Philosophie Karl
Jaspers' unter christologischem Aspekt (Frankfurt, 1986).
23. Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium 10, ed. W. Jaeger, pp. 227, 26 (Patrologia Graeca
45, 828 C); cf. also hom. 11, in cant, Patrologia Graeca 44, 1013. C. E. Kästner expresses it in much the
same way in Die Stundentrömmel, p. 117 (see note 1): "jeder fühlt
es: Wissenschaft and Forschungsergebnis sinkt dahin im Vergleiche zu dem, was in Unwissen jene Holzbildhauer ersannen.
Der Gewinn ist erschlichen und dürftig. Das Organ, mut dem jene suchten, ist das edlere von beiden gewesen:
ein Auge, während historisches Forschen nur ein Greiforgan ist. Begreifen will es, das sagt es ja selbst."
24. So states H. U. von Balthasar in his introduction to Gregor v. Nyssa. Der versiegelte
Quell. Auslegung des Hohen Liedes (Einsiedeln, 1984), p. 17.
25. R. Guardini, Das Christusbild der paulinischen und johanneischen Schriften (Würzburg,
1961), p. 14. The reflections on methodology which Guardini develops in this work (pp. 7-15) should be counted,
in my opinion among the most significant thus far advanced regarding the problem of method in the interpretation
of Scripture. Guardini had already dealt explicitly with this problem in the early period of his career with his
article "Heilige Schrift und Glaubenswissenschaft," in Die Schildgenossen 8 (1928), pp. 24-57. M. Theobald
takes a critical position with regard to Guardini's exegetical theory and practice in "die Autonomie der historischen
Kritik — Ausdruck des Unglaubens oder theologische Notwendigkeit? Zur Schriftauslegung R. Guardinis," in Auslegungen
des Glaubens. Zur Hermeneutik christlicher Existenz, ed. L. Honnefelder and M. LutzBachmann (Berlin: Hildesheim,
1987), pp. 21-45.
26. Gregor of Nyssa, hom. 10 in cant. Patrologia Graeca 44, 980 B-C, in the edition of
W. Jaeger (ed. H. Langerbeck [Leiden, 1960]), VI, 295, 5-296, 3. German translation by H. U. von Balthasar (see
note 24), p. 78.
27. Cf. Guardini, Das Christusbild, p. 11.
28. Cf. also J. Bergmann, H. Lutzmann, W. H. Schmidt, däbär, in Theol. Wörterbuch
zum Alten Testament 2, ed. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (1977), pp. 89-133; O. Proksch, legö, in Theologisches
Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament 4, esp. pp. 91-97. On the unity of word and event in Thomas, cf. M. Arias-Reyero,
Thomas von Aquin als Exeget (Einsiedeln, 1971), pp. 102, 246f, et passim.
29. For a correct understanding of teleology, see R. Spaemann and R. Löw, Die Frage
Wazu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des Teleologischen Denkens (Munich and Zurich, 1981).
30. "Officium est enim boni interpretis non considerare verba sed sensum." In
Matthaeum 27, no. 2321, ed. R. Cai (Turin, Rome, 1951), p. 358; cf. Arias, Thomas von Aquin, p. 161.
31. H. Schlier, "Was heisst? Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift?" in Besinnung auf
das Neue Testament. Exegetische Aufsätze und Vortaräge 2 (Freiburg, 1964), pp. 35-62, here 62; cf. J.
Gnilka, "Die biblische Exegese im Lichte des Dekretes über die göttliche Offenbarung," Münchnere
Theologische Zeitschrift 36 (1985): p. 14.
32. Gnilka, "Die biblische Exegese," p. 14.
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