|The following lecture was delivered on 27 January 1988, at
Saint Peter's Church, in New York, NY.
Soloviev'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 Soloviev 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.1
Such a state of affairs could not but generate a
counter-reaction. Among cautious systematic theologians, there
began the search for a theology which was as independent as
possible from exegesis.2 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."3 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."4 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
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.5 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 message 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
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 solution.
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 itself.
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 appearance 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.7
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?8
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
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."9 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.10 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.11 All
events, therefore, are already secondary, mythological
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."12
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.13 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 theory.
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."14.
Bultmann saw the pure form in the "apothegm," "the original
specific fragment which would sum things up concisely; interest
would be concentrated on the wordspoken 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."15 The arbitrary 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.16 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.17
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.18
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.19 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 assertions.20
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
non-historicity 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.21
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
appreciate 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.22 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 development 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 philosophy.
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
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 "pre-critical."
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
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.)23 "The 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."24
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."25
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 . . . "26
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 "sympathia" 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.27 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
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.28
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.29
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 re-readings 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."30
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."31 Johann Gnilka gave
concrete expression to this warning when he reacted against an
exaggerated emphasis by the history-of-traditions school.32
Along the same lines, I would like to express the following
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
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.
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),
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
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. pp. 15-23.
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 "reflectionis
doubtlessly earlierin 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 831987:194.) 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," p. 172ff.
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 (Hamburg, 1948-1955).
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. LangerbeckLeiden, 1960), VI, 295, 5-296, 3. German
translation by H. U. von Balthasar (see note 24), p. 78.
27. Cf. Guardini, Das Christusbild, p.
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
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.