Homiletic & Pastoral Review

The Pastores Dabo Vobis Award in Honor of Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. (learn more)

The twentieth century was a tumultuous time in the Catholic Church for all concerned with the interpretation of the Bible. For the past few decades, this topic has been a principal concern of one prominent theologian. His interest in the topic arose at the time of the Second Vatican Council, when he was a promising young theologian from Germany who served at the Council as the theological adviser to Joseph Cardinal Frings, the archbishop of Cologne—Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. This interest has continued unabated into his reign as Pope Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger’s career as a theologian had begun well before the Council. He taught successively at four universities in Germany: Bonn (1959–63), Münster (1963–66), Tübingen (1966–69) and Regensburg (1969–77). In March of 1977 he was named archbishop of Munich-Freising, the archdiocese for which he had been ordained. In 1981, after only four years as archbishop of Munich, Pope John Paul II called Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome, where he served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades. On April 19, 2005, he was elected pope on the fourth ballot, and assumed the name Benedict XVI. In the course of more than forty years, Pope Benedict has written often and at length about the theology of the Bible.

What is meant by the theology of the Bible? If theology is faith seeking understanding, then the theology of the Bible must be the act of a Christian believer seeking to understand the revealed word of God recorded in the Bible. “Biblical theology refers to a unified understanding of the saving truths of the inspired Scripture as they have been handed down in the tradition of the Church. This understanding is based on the unity of the Old and New Testaments, on Christ as the interpretive key of the Scriptures, and on the Church’s divine liturgy as the fulfillment and actualization of Scripture’s saving truths.”1

The vicissitudes of Catholic biblical scholarship

The history of biblical scholarship in the Catholic Church during the past century and a half has been told and retold, even taking on the qualities of a saga or an epic. The era began in an embattled atmosphere in the Church, in which the great enemy was the “modern mind.” It began, Ratzinger writes, with Pius IX’s promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, and extended to Humani Generis, issued in 1950 by Pius XII.2 Within this century, the embattled atmosphere reached its zenith under Pius X. Around the year 1900, a movement designated “Modernism” arose in the Catholic Church. Modernism displayed three principal tendencies: (1) religion was a product of the subconscious; (2) theology was a matter of subjective feeling; and (3) revelation was reduced to nothing more than a religious need. Tradition and dogma were dismissed as mere objectifications of those feelings and needs. Furthermore, since neither tradition nor dogma contained objective or unchanging truth, they should then be adapted to contemporary needs. In this way Modernists used subjective biblical criticism or “historicism” to locate truths (biblical, philosophical or creedal) so firmly in the irretrievable past that any claim to an unassailable or universal truth became impossible.

Modernism was condemned in 1907, under Pope Pius X. In July of that year, the Holy Office published the decree Lamentabili sane, and two months later, Pius X promulgated the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregisLamentabili, which condemned sixty-five propositions attributed to Modernists, rejected, in proposition after proposition, any thesis that questioned the historicity of the Bible, especially of the gospels, and any thesis that appeared to sever the continuity between the Scriptures and the Church’s dogmatic teaching. The encyclical Pascendi repeated these themes and attacked any theory that divided the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith—that is, as the pope phased it, the humanly knowable objective facts about Jesus that can be extracted from the gospels from the idealized Christ who exists only in the pious meditations of the believer and in the Church’s dogmas.3 After Lamentabili and Pascendi, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued response after response that rejected the results of historical criticism, and Catholic scholarship sank into biblical winter.

This winter lasted until 1943, when Pius XII promulgated his great encyclical promoting biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu, in the midst of World War II.4 The encyclical was restrained, but the change in atmosphere was dramatic. Pius encouraged study of the Bible in the original languages, affirmed the importance of historical criticism, stressed the primacy of the literal sense, and encouraged the study of sources and literary forms in the biblical books.5 In other words, Pius endorsed the methods of historical criticism.

Since 1943 Catholic biblical scholarship has thawed, flourishing in a new springtime. Scholarly publications by Catholics gradually gained the respect of Protestants. In seminary faculties, and later in university departments of theology, Sacred Scripture ceased to be a discipline auxiliary to dogma; it took on a life of its own, and soon acquired its own name, “Biblical Studies.” In the course of the twentieth century, therefore, the teaching Church seemed to have done an about-face: from the rigorous condemnation of a historicist approach to the Bible to an enthusiastic acceptance of it.

The developmental history of Ratzinger’s thought on the theology of the Bible falls into four principal periods. The first period is the one around Vatican Council II. Ratzinger was present at all four sessions of the Council and wrote short accounts of each session, as well as a commentary on Dei Verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). The second period is rather a point: that is, the address that Cardinal Ratzinger gave as the Erasmus Lecture in New York City in January of 1988. The third period extends from 1988 to his pontificate, with Cardinal Ratzinger continuing to develop, and even refine, the themes of his pivotal 1988 address. Finally, the fourth (and perhaps last!) period is the time of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, in which the 2007 publication of the book Jesus of Nazareth is especially important.

1.  Fr. Joseph Ratzinger at Vatican Council II

Ratzinger’s interest in Scripture manifested itself near the beginning of his career as a theologian. After each of the four sessions of Vatican II, he wrote a pamphlet in which he gave an account of the theological highlights of the session, recounting the history of the session and providing an evaluation of it—a sort of Xavier Rynne without the gossip.6 As the Council progresses one senses Ratzinger’s fears and hopes, and we learn that what was to be Dei Verbum was the biggest battleground of the Council and one of Ratzinger’s principal theological interests.  One of the fears that Ratzinger expressed in these pamphlets was what he called ecclesio-monism, stating:

The Council…averted the danger of a narrow ecclesiastical focus and of mere self-analysis by the Church. It was primarily through theConstitution on Divine Revelation that the whole Council and its teaching on the Church were opened up to the teaching on God, before whom even the Church itself is only a listener.7

In reaction to ecclesio-monism, Ratzinger followed closely the schema on Dei Verbum. No schema had a longer history in the Council than this one, going through seven versions during more than three years, and it was not solemnly promulgated until November 18, 1965, less than three weeks before the end of the Council.8

It is worth following Ratzinger through the development of Dei Verbum. He had been pleased that debate at the Council began with theConstitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In contrast, he was deeply discouraged by the initial schema On the Sources of Revelation. The title of this schema already betrayed the problem: the two sources were, of course, Scripture and tradition. Ratzinger writes extensively, at this period, on the true nature of tradition. Whatever else it is, it is not a source of revealed information parallel to and independent of Scripture, although the authors of the first schema thought in those terms. Moreover, the first schema dealt with the “sources” of revelation rather than with revelation itself. The schema, Ratzinger wrote, was utterly “a product of the anti-Modernist mentality…written in a spirit of condemnation and negation”; it “had a frigid and even offensive tone.”9 But, he adds, “the content of the text was news to no one. It was exactly like dozens of textbooks familiar to the bishops from their seminary days.”10

The key question was faith and history. The condemnation of Modernism had only postponed the question that contemporary historical scholarship raised; it had never answered it. Now the question arose again.11 Ratzinger calls the bishops’ willingness to encounter the question “a new beginning.”12 The Council had the opportunity to end the outdated fight against Modernism, and they seized it.

Ratzinger recounts the dramatic events of late November 1962. Many Council Fathers were unhappy with the schema on the sources of revelation; on November 19, Cardinal Liénart exclaimed tersely, “Hoc schema mihi non placet” (“This plan of action is unacceptable to me”).13 A vote on whether the schema should be withdrawn was taken on November 20, and with just less than two-thirds of the bishops voting to have the schema withdrawn, not enough votes were present to withdraw it. A spirit of “dismay and even anger”14 settled over the Council, writes Ratzinger. But the next day, Pope John XXIII surprisingly intervened and ordered the schema withdrawn. An event with enormous implications had taken place: Pope John XXIII had sided with the majority of the Council Fathers against the curial forces that had prepared the schema. The Council Fathers began to sense their influence and the Pope’s support. Ratzinger later wrote that the history of the schema Dei Verbum was fused with the history of the Council into a kind of unity.15

In his comments on the third session of the Council (1964), Ratzinger returned to the problem of faith and history. He phrases the problem concisely, and the paragraph is worth quoting:

The method of historical criticism, which saw the Bible in an entirely new light, had won its first victories. The sacred books, believed to be the work of a very few authors to whom God had directly dictated his words, suddenly appeared as a work expressive of an entire human history, which had grown layer by layer throughout millennia, a history deeply interwoven with the religious history of surrounding peoples. By the same token, the deductions of scholastic theology seemed to be doubtful on many points in the light of the Bible as seen from the viewpoint of historical criticism.16

Debate on Dei Verbum continued almost until the end of the Council. “Up to the last minute the discussion on this text had been persistently dramatic,” Ratzinger wrote.17 The pope himself intervened in late October and proposed three changes. The pope’s suggestions were openly discussed and, to some extent, altered—an early exercise in collegiality, Ratzinger observed.18 By the fourth session, however, Ratzinger was convinced that the version of Dei Verbum that passed almost unanimously was a superb document: a document centered on Christ and not on propositions about him, a document focused on the beauty of revelation and not on its sources.

The Council ended on December 8, 1965, and very soon thereafter, Ratzinger managed a coup of sorts. The publishing house Herder, in Freiburg, commissioned a five-volume commentary on the documents of Vatican II, and Ratzinger wrote much of the commentary on Dei Verbum. The work was soon translated into English, and Ratzinger’s commentary became one of the most influential interpretations of Vatican II on revelation; many a teacher prepared his notes from that commentary.

In the Herder Commentary, Ratzinger wrote on the origin and background of Dei Verbum, and comments on the preface and three chapters of the constitution: chapter I on “Revelation Itself,” chapter II on the “Transmission of Divine Revelation,” and chapter VI on “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church.” In his opening chapter, Ratzinger is concerned with the questions of Scripture and tradition, inspiration, and inerrancy. He also writes of critical historical methods, but cautiously: the question of the relation of critical exegesis to Church exegesis, and of historical research to Church tradition, is not settled.19

During the Council and immediately after it, Ratzinger saw a need and an opportunity. The Church needed to overcome the outdated past. The time from the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 to the encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 had been a period of anti-Modernism, which assumed a posture of defensiveness, retreat and rejection, rather than one of staking out a clear position and formulating a reasoned response. Thus, the question of faith and history remained unanswered: could Christian faith, with its assertion of absolute and timeless truth, survive the prevailing historicism, which found certain truth only in the single event of the past? Ratzinger expressed cautious hope, in the mid-1960s, that theology could live with history, if not with pure historicism. And the key area of conflict was Scripture. The primacy of Scripture in the Catholic Church would keep the Church from becoming the central object of its own reflection, the ecclesio-monism that Ratzinger feared. But the adoption of historical criticism by Catholics entailed its own risk—namely, in an extreme form, a lapse into Protestantism.

2. New York, 1988: Cardinal Ratzinger’s Erasmus Lecture

Key to any account of Pope Benedict XVI’s thought on biblical interpretation is a talk he gave on January 27, 1988, in New York City: “Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis.” This address was the annual Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by the Center on Religion and Society, and it was followed by a conference in which then-Cardinal Ratzinger participated. This address stands as pivotal because it is essentially a call for criticism of criticism,20 “a self-criticism of historical exegesis, which could be expanded into a criticism of historical reason, as a continuation and modification of Kant’s critique of reason.”21

Ratzinger begins provocatively, with a reference to Vladimir Solovyov’s History of the Antichrist: Solovyov’s Antichrist had a doctorate in theology from the University of Tübingen and wrote a pioneering work on exegesis. The historical-critical method, Ratzinger wrote, began optimistically: free of Church dogma, scholars could reach a correct and objective understanding of the Bible and, once again, hear the clear and unmistakable voice of Jesus himself. But the method soon became not a gateway, but a fence, which kept out all but the initiated. Critics read not the Bible, but small parts of it. Faith, and a God who acts, had to be put aside. The really historical became the purely human. Critics searched out original sources, and these sources were to be the criteria for interpretation.

When he called for a criticism of criticism,22 Ratzinger used the work of Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius as examples of historical criticism. He saw three basic problems with it. The first problem is the priority of proclamation over event. These critics assume that the events narrated in the gospels (for example) had their origin in preaching, and that the narrative of the event developed later, out of the proclamation. The word creates the scenario, so that the event is secondary, a mythological development.

The second problem is the axiom of discontinuity that these critics invoke. What follows from the axiom of discontinuity is the affirmation of pairs of concepts, one of which names something original and authentic, the other something later and unauthentic. Thus, critics stress the discontinuity between the pre-Resurrection tradition and the post-Resurrection tradition, between the earthly Jesus and the primitive Church, and between the Old Testament and the New Testament. For example, “word” is original, “cult” is later, then “Jewish” is pitted against “Hellenistic,” prophetic versus legal, gospel versus law. Anything apocalyptic, sacramental or mystical had to be excluded from authentic Christianity.23 What is one left with? As far as Jesus is concerned, “a strictly eschatological prophet, who actually proclaimed nothing of substance at all.”24 In terms of the Church, one is left with radical Protestantism, a human community without cult, without sacraments, without ethics.

The third problem is the axiom that “only simple things are original, and what is complex is necessarily late.”25 Phrased in another way, historical critics have followed an evolutionary model. In evolution, life begins with simple forms and gradually evolves into more complex ones; it is never the other way around. Applied to the New Testament, the evolutionary model must mean, for example, that Jesus was initially perceived as an ordinary, if gifted, human being, and that perception of him as divine, and preexistent, must be a later development. But history does not operate the way evolution does; one cannot say a priori that the Prologue to the Gospel according to St. John, or the breathtaking hymn in the Epistle to the Philippians, must be later because of their so-called high Christology. History often works by the principle of epigones: after the towering genius and the world-changing insight come the second-rate imitators and the pedestrian ideas. The First Epistle of Clement is not more profound than the Epistle to the Romans, and Pope Gregory the Great is not more insightful than St. Augustine of Hippo.

Ratzinger’s question is this: “Do we have to agree with the philosophy that makes this [historicist] reading obligatory?” or, “Can we read the Bible differently?”26 The answer cannot be a simple retreat to the Middle Ages, or to the Fathers of the Church. Nor, however, can it simply be a capitulation to contemporary biblical scholarship. Ratzinger proposes five steps toward achieving a new synthesis.

  1. Theology should not be confused with physiology. Interpretation of the Bible is not governed by the rules of natural science. The believer must be ready to experience something new, to be led along a new path.
  2. The exegete may not exclude the possibility that God can speak in human words, or that he can enter into history and act in it.
  3. The event itself may be a word—that is, an event may glow with meaning from within. The historical Christ-event gives meaning to history, and history now has a direction, a purpose, a goal, so that the events of the Old Testament can be understood fully only in the light of Christ.
  4. Because, in Scripture, God is speaking through human words, “a passage can signify more than its author himself was able to conceive in composing it.”
  5. Finally, in the past one hundred years, exegesis has achieved great things, but it has also produced great errors; and some of these errors have become academic dogmas.

After these five points, Ratzinger ends by expressing five hopes:

  1. He hopes for a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method.
  2. He hopes that exegesis will recognize itself as a historical discipline and be able to criticize itself.
  3. He hopes that exegesis will examine its own history and the essential philosophical alternatives for human thought, not only for the past 150 years but for all of patristic and medieval thought.
  4. He hopes that a new and fruitful collaboration between exegesis and systematic theology will begin.
  5. He hopes that exegetes will see the Bible as the product of a coherent history (the history of the Church), and see this history as the proper place for coming to understanding.27

In summary: in 1988, Ratzinger mounted a philosophical attack on historical criticism, to the extent that it had withdrawn from the Church’s doctrinal tradition. He joined the chorus of those voices who were calling for an exegesis within the Church and within the Church’s tradition. Ratzinger never again wrote anything as strong or as insistent as the address he gave in 1988, and perhaps he did not have to.

3.  Cardinal Ratzinger to Benedict XVI (1988-2007)

After 1988, Ratzinger continued to make his point—never loudly, never contentiously, but in subtle and gentle ways, ways that even veil a certain ironic humor. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was ex officio also the president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. As such, he wrote important prefaces to two documents of the Commission. In these short prefaces, while he expresses the expected, fulsome praise of these documents, he also clearly points out their shortcomings and corrects them. Then, in 2002, he wrote a provocative response to critics of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ten years after its publication. After the election of 2005, Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—gave an important homily when he took possession of his cathedral, St. John Lateran. Finally, some addresses that he has given as pope continue the theme. Between this time in 1988 until his publication of Jesus of Nazareth in 2007, six important moments stand out.

1. Preface to The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993)

In April of 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission published a major document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Pope John Paul II gave an address on it, and Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a short preface. Ratzinger’s preface appears as a course-correction to the document. He writes, of course, of the historical-critical method as opening a new era. But he then goes on to speak of the hidden dangers of that method, in a sentence that sums up the essence of historicism: the dangers are putting the word so completely back into the past that it is no longer taken in its actuality, and seeing only the human dimension of the word as real, so that the word’s genuine author, God, is removed from reach.28 Ratzinger goes on to praise “new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture.”29 This statement stands in sharp contrast to a sentence in the document that must have set Ratzinger’s teeth on edge. It reads: “the allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today.”30 Ratzinger expands his thoughts, expressed already, on the key sentence from Dei Verbum §12, on the role of the Tradition of the entire Church and of the analogy of faith in interpreting Scripture. Finally, Ratzinger thought it important to reiterate the fact that the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its new form, “is not an organ of the teaching office.”31

2. Preface to The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001)

The second short writing is the preface to another document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, one entitled The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, published in 2001.32 Again, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a preface to the document. In the very first sentence, he insists on the unity of the Church’s Bible, Old and New Testaments. He contrasts St. Augustine with the Manichees: St. Augustine learned from St. Ambrose to interpret the Old Testament spiritually, while the Manichees took it as “just a document of the religious history of a particular people.”33 It is easy to guess that Ratzinger was convinced that the Manichaean attitude toward the Old Testament was not dead. He goes on to mention Adolf von Harnack who, in a famous sentence, wrote that, since the nineteenth century, for Protestantism to maintain the Old Testament as a canonical document was “the result of religious and ecclesiastical paralysis.”34

3. “Is the Catechism of the Catholic Church Up-to-Date?” (2002)

In 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger published an article in the German edition of L’Osservatore Romano, translated into English as “Is the Catechism of the Catholic Church Up-to-Date? Reflections Ten Years after Its Publication.”35 Ratzinger concedes that the Catechism was the subject of severe criticism when it was published, seeing how there was “a wall of skepticism, indeed, of rejection among some of the Catholic intelligentsia in the Western world.”36 “It was said,” he continued, “that the Catechism had slept through the theological and especially the exegetical development of the last century.”37 The volume of the attacks on the Catechism’s use of Scripture was particularly loud.38 As Ratzinger saw it, the Catechism’s opponents wanted to know how the Magisterium understood the essence of Sacred Scripture. In short, a collection of documents written in the course of more than a millennium, which now constitute one holy book: the Bible is more than the sum of its parts. Christianity is grounded in historical events—better, a coherent historical narrative—but also goes beyond that narrative. It is in this context Ratzinger wrote:

These historical events are significant for the faith only because faith is certain that God himself has acted in them in a specific way and that the events carry within themselves a surplus meaning that is beyond mere historical facticity and comes from somewhere else, giving them significance for all time and for all men.39

Finally, Ratzinger makes his clearest confessional or theological point: Christianity is not a religion of the book, but a religion of a person. “The living Christ is the genuine norm for interpreting the Bible.”40 The Bible can be understood correctly only within the synchronic and diachronic understanding of the faith shared by the whole Church.41 Ratzinger’s words concluding the section are worth quoting:

There is every reason to revise the rash judgments about the “backwoods” character of the scriptural interpretation in the Catechismand to rejoice that it unabashedly reads Scripture as a present Word and hence was able to allow itself, in every part of it, to be thoroughly informed by Scripture as a living source.42

4. Homily in the Lateran Basilica (May 9, 2005)

On May 9, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI took possession of his cathedral church, the Basilica of Our Savior and Saint John in the Lateran. He delivered a significant homily opening with these words: “This day, in which for the first time I…sit in the chair of the bishop of Rome, as Successor of Peter….”43 In the doctrinal section of the homily, he spoke first of the Church’s duty to preach only Christ. He then spoke of the bishop of Rome’s duty to remain faithful to the creed. Next, he turned to Sacred Scripture and spoke of “the ministry of authentic interpretation” as part of the potestas docendi that the bishop of Rome has received. In the paragraph immediately following, Benedict set up a contrast between experts in Scripture studies and the living voice of the Church, found particularly in the successor of Peter and in the college of apostles and their successors:

Whenever Sacred Scripture is removed from the living voice of the Church, it becomes a victim of the experts’ disputes. Certainly all that the latter can tell us is important and precious; the work of the learned is of notable help to us to be able to understand the living process with which Scripture grew and thus understand its historical richness. But science on its own cannot offer us a definitive and binding interpretation; it is not able to give us, in the interpretation, that certainty with which we can live and also for which we can die. For this, the living voice of the Church is needed, of that Church entrusted to Peter and the college of apostles until the end of time.44

Benedict is staking out his claim here: a claim to the ministry of the authentic interpretation of Scripture, a ministry of the pope in union with the college of bishops. Experts may help them understand the Scriptures in their historical richness, but they cannot offer a binding interpretation. For that, the living voice of the Church is needed. Benedict is not saying anything new, but he is saying something quite clear. Scripture scholars do not, and cannot, have the authoritative word; the Bible belongs in the Church and to the Church.

5. Address to Participants in the Conference on “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church” (2005)

On September 16, 2005 Pope Benedict addressed 400 participants in an international conference on “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church,” held on the fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of Dei Verbum.45 Opening by admitting how he “personally witnessed as a young theologian” the drafting of Dei Verbum, he makes several points. The first is that the bishops are the first witnesses of the Word of God, followed by theologians who investigate, explain, and translate it, and then by pastors who seek in the Scripture solutions to the problems of the time. He interprets the opening words of the Dogmatic Constitution, “Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans,” as a description of the Church: a community that listens to and proclaims the Word of God. The Church venerates the Scriptures as she venerates the Body of the Lord, he says, quoting Dei Verbumagain. His final point is not about study or research, but about lectio divina, “the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer.” Just as the proclamation of the Bible’s pages within the liturgy is the public face of Scripture, so too lectio divina is the private face of Scripture in the ongoing sanctification of Christian men and women.

6. Address to the Faculty and Students of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (October 26, 2009)

In October of 2009, Pope Benedict addressed the faculty and students of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, on the occasion of the centenary of the founding of that institute by Pope Pius X in 1909.46 Unsurprisingly, Benedict stressed familiar themes.

The first theme is the double character of exegesis, taught in Dei Verbum §12: historical criticism must be coupled with theological method in interpretation, because the Scripture is one. The unity of Scripture corresponds to the analogy of faith, by which individual texts are understood in light of the whole. Further, Scripture must be read from the Church, for the Church’s faith is the true key to interpretation. If exegesis is also to be theology, as it should be, then it must take Tradition into account; it is the Church that has been entrusted with the task of interpreting the world of God authentically.


Benedict’s message, conveyed in various writings and addresses in the course of more than twenty years, can be summed up briefly. Christianity is not a religion of the book, he would say, but of a person, Jesus the Christ. This person is the key to the interpretation of the whole of the Scriptures. Hence, as a unity, the Bible is more than the sum of its parts, and the events narrated in the Bible carry a surplus of meaning. In particular, a purely literal interpretation of the Old Testament would exclude it from the Church. Dei Verbum §12 is key: both the intention of the human writers and the divine authorship of the Bible must always be given their proper weight in interpretation. The pope and the college of bishops enjoy the ministry of authentic interpretation. Specifically, Pope Benedict attempts to recover the great insights of patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation. Following Dei Verbum §25, Benedict encourages a renewal of lectio divina, the devout and prayerful reading of Holy Scripture, in silence and a spirit of contemplation.

4. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth

In 2007, an extraordinary event occurred. Pope Benedict XVI published a book, Jesus of Nazareth. This book represents the positive side of the criticisms he had been expressing for several decades: a work which would “portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, ‘historical’ Jesus.”47 An audacious claim in the world of modern biblical scholarship but with the simple faith of the Apostles, Benedict states without qualification, “I trust the Gospels.”48

The foreword to Jesus of Nazareth lays out Benedict’s method. The historical fact must be the starting point because, as the Creed says, “et incarnatus est”—God actually entered into real history.49 Ratzinger again cites the crucial paragraph §12 of Dei Verbum with its appeal to the unity of the whole Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the analogy of faith.50 Thus there arises a theological exegesis. Inspiration means that the author does not speak as a self-contained subject; and Ratzinger even, at this point, invokes the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture.51 The book is, finally, an expression of Benedict’s “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8).”52

The words of Scripture cannot be forced into logical formalism. The Holy Spirit teaches by image, symbol and story. Thus the literal sense embraces what the human author intended. But this literal sense is not equivalent to that of a newspaper article. The Court History of David may seem like reporting, but it is more than that. The psalms, or the canticles in Isaiah, are surely more than that. Contained within the literal sense is a spiritual sense, often divided into three levels: the typological or allegorical, the moral or tropological, and the anagogical. The human author may or may not have been conscious of them; but the Holy Spirit, the source of inspiration, intended them.

The heart of the typological sense is that the life of Jesus Christ, the Christ event, provides the key to understanding the whole of the Bible, in its unity. To mention only a few examples, Benedict writes of Jesus as the new Moses, but also the new Adam, the new Jacob, and the new David. The Fathers of the Church had a deep sense of types and antitypes. As they read the Old Testament, water regularly reminded them of baptism, bread and wine of the Eucharist, wood of the cross.

The moral or tropological sense extends far beyond the Ten Commandments of the Old Law and the two great commandments of the New Law, to a whole range of vices to be avoided, virtues to be practiced, models to be imitated, and ideals to be realized, some of which are explicit, while others are implicit.

The anagogical sense points to the relation of the words and the deeds recorded in Scripture to their universal and eternal significance, especially as they lead beyond this world to our true and everlasting homeland. On this level we see the sacraments instituted by Christ—baptism, the Eucharist, the priesthood—transcending time and place and effecting saving grace. As Paul already saw, the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea and their feeding on manna in the desert link the events of the Old Testament, the acts of Christ, and the Church’s celebration of the sacraments into a unity.

In an exceptionally beautiful and profound passage later in the book, Benedict deals with the concept of “remembering” in St. John’s gospel. He is trying to refute the outdated thesis that St. John’s gospel is simply a “Jesus poem” with little relation to historical events. But he is also concerned to show that John goes beyond, or deeper than, the mere recounting of facts.

He picks out three key phrases in John where the author uses the word “remember.” Two occur early in the gospel. Jesus cleanses the temple, and his disciples remember a passage from the psalms: “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”53 Here, an event brings to mind a passage from Scripture, and the event becomes intelligible. A few verses later, Jesus says that he will rebuild the temple in three days (John 2:22). When he is raised from the dead, his disciples remember what he said. Here, an event makes a word intelligible. Finally, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is seated on a young ass, and John recalls a verse from Zechariah: “Your king is coming, seated on an ass’ colt.”54 Only when Jesus is glorified do his disciples remember the Scripture and the event. Here, a later event makes both the Scripture and an earlier event intelligible.

In other words, in the act of remembering, Benedict sees an interplay of three elements: events in Jesus’ life, passages from Scripture, and the perception of true meaning. (1) An event takes place, Scripture is recalled, and the Scripture makes the event intelligible. (2) Or, Jesus speaks a word, an event takes place, and the event makes Jesus’ word intelligible. (3) Or, finally, an event takes place, Scripture is recalled, and a later event makes both intelligible. This interplay of events in Jesus’ life, passages from Scripture, words that Jesus spoke, and the central fact of the Resurrection all come together in the act of remembering to lead to the fullness of understanding in the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

The process that Benedict proposes does not end with the Bible. As Dei Verbum §8 states, “as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth.” Throughout the book, Benedict demonstrates his profound knowledge of the text of the Scriptures, often quoting verses that are hardly among the most familiar. He weaves together elements from both testaments, and he calls upon elements of the Roman liturgy as illustrations. He invokes the Fathers with equal ease. What Benedict has done, therefore, is to produce a work of theological exegesis, both as an inspiration and as a model.


The theology of the Bible elaborated by Pope Benedict XVI in the course of almost fifty years might be summarized in ten theses.

  1. The word of God must be approached with sympathetic understanding, a readiness to experience something new, and a readiness to be taken along a new path (cf. God’s Word, 116).
  2. A true understanding of the Bible calls for a philosophy that is open to analogy and participation, and not based on the dogmatism of a worldview derived from natural science (cf. God’s Word, 118).
  3. The exegete may not exclude, a priori, the possibility that God could speak in human words in this world, or that God could act in history and enter into it (cf. God’s Word, 116).
  4. Faith is a component of biblical interpretation, and God is a factor in historical events (cf. God’s Word, 126).
  5. Besides being seen in their historical setting and interpreted in their historical contexts, the texts of Scripture must be seen from the perspective of the movement of history as a whole and of Christ as the central event.
  6. Because the biblical word bears witness to revelation, a biblical passage can signify more than its author was able to conceive in composing it (cf.God’s Word, 123).
  7. The exegetical question cannot be solved by simply retreating into the Middle Ages or the Fathers, nor can it renounce the insights of the great believers of all ages, as if the history of thought began seriously only with Kant (cf. God’s Word, 114 and 125).
  8. Dei Verbum envisioned a synthesis of historical method and theological hermeneutics, but did not elaborate it. The theological part of its statements needs to be attended to (cf. God’s Word, 98-99).
  9. Exegesis is theological, as Dei Verbum taught, particularly on these points: (1) Sacred Scripture is a unity, and individual texts are understood in light of the whole. (2) The one historical subject that traverses all of Scripture is the people of God. (3) Scripture must be read from the Church as its true hermeneutical key. Thus, Tradition does not obstruct access to Scripture but opens it; and, conversely, the Church has a decisive say in the interpretation of Scripture (cf. God’s Word, 97).
  10. Theology may not be detached from its foundation in the Bible or be independent of exegesis (cf. God’s Word, 93).

We cannot go back; can we go forward? Pope Benedict sees the answer in Lumen Gentium §12. We should search out the meaning that the sacred writers of Holy Scripture intended. But the Scriptures also have a divine Author, so that we must take into account the unity of the whole of Scripture, the Tradition of the entire Church, and the analogy of faith. In other words, Benedict foresees not only a renewed exegesis, but also a renewed theology. And the wellspring from which both flow is the liturgy. Benedict has tried to point the way—humbly, as he writes—in his bookJesus of Nazareth. But the book is only a small beginning. Benedict’s theology is symphonic rather than dogmatic: setting for himself, and also for scholars, theologians, and the whole Church, the task of creating a new biblical spring, a new theological summer. He foresees a renewed theology, one that incorporates profound knowledge of the Bible into knowledge of the whole history of its interpretation, and grasps the Holy Scriptures in their liturgical setting. Scripture, theology, liturgy: these three must always and ever be one.

Of course, this thought is hardly new. It goes as far back as the New Testament itself, to the beautiful narrative of Jesus and the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, the oldest extant account of the structure of the Mass: the word is proclaimed, its meaning is explained; but the fullness of understanding comes only when the Eucharistic bread is broken.

The Pastores Dabo Vobis Award in Honor of Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

Homiletic & Pastoral Review aims to bring the beauty and the richness of the one, true faith to the world in a way that transforms both mind and heart. Each and every day Christ calls his Church to be nourished on his own Body and Blood, to receive the gift of his Holy Spirit and to consecrate his world in truth and in love. Such renewal must be constant and unyielding, an incessant yearning for a holiness that sanctifies our desires and sharpens our intellect.

In the hope of honoring and fostering the renewal of today’s clergy in particular, HPR will use the lengthier, combined August/September issue to highlight the best seminary lecture from the previous academic year. The name of this award calls to mind the great reformer of our own day, John Paul II, and his pioneering encyclical on the need for holy and intelligent priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), recalling God’s promise to Jeremiah—“I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jer. 3:15). At the same time, this award also seeks to honor the untiring priestly work Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. achieved in these pages over the past forty years. Whenever the times call for exceptional clarity and charity, God never fails to send such laborers into his vineyard.

The winner of the first annual “Pastores Dabo Vobis Award in Honor of Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.” is Fr. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., professor of patristic theology at both Fordham University and Dunwoodie Seminary in New York. This talk was the 15th Annual Peter Richard Kenrick Lecture, delivered at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, on March 18, 2010.