April 15, 2011

What is historical-critical exegesis?

We need to lay a little more groundwork. Last time, we answered the question "What is hermeneutics?" Not long after we first encounter "hermeneutics" and "exegesis", the Holy Father discusses "historical-critical exegesis". We know that the point of exegesis "is to find out what exactly a given passage of the Bible says" (Hardon 1999), but what is this particular kind of exegesis all about?

Someone performing historical-critical exegesis seeks to "penetrate the secret of language, to understand it in its structure and its mode of expression". That exegete* focuses on the historical facts that the Holy Father tells us make up "a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith" and searches for the meaning of the author's words in historical context. The historical-critical exegete looks at the Bible as a collection of historical documents to be read with the mind and experience of the original audience. How did John's audience understand his Gospel? What did this saying of Jesus mean to those hearing Him? There is value to historical-critical study, because "(t)he history of salvation is not mythology, but a true history." The Pope tells us that "attention to such methods is indispensable, linked as it is to the realism of the Incarnation."

Note, though, that the Holy Father doesn't recommend using this method exclusively.Scholars should neither reject a scientific approach not rely on it solely (the Catholic "both-and" rather than "either-or").

To put these two approaches in opposition is a "dualistic approach to sacred Scripture", while, really, the "then" and "now" views complement each other. The scientific and spiritual work hand-in-hand. The Bible is not "a text belonging only to the past". The Pope calls this a "secularized hermeneutic...based on the conviction tha the Divine does not intervene in human history." Indeed, viewed in this purely secular way, it is only a history book whose figures are all long dead. The God of that book would be long dead and silent as well. Instead, we worship the living God that speaks to us today in His written word.

Everyday readers of Scripture can benefit, as well, from a combined spiritual and scientific view. The story of Scripture, the way God's plan of salvation has been accomplished, is fascinating; at the same time, the words of Scripture tell us about Christ, about our own moral life, and about the goal of Heaven.

If you'd like to see how this "both-and" scholarship works - and how it can benefit your understanding of Scripture - read some of the current orthodox Catholic Scripture scholars. Drs. Barber, Bergsma, and Pitre blog at The Sacred Page. Also, Tim Staples often digs into the original languages when explaining Bible passages on Catholic Answers Live!

As we continue through this section of Verbum Domini, we'll learn more about these two complementary approaches to Scripture and how to read the Bible with them.

* The person doing exegesis

Hardon, John. 1999. "Hermeneutics". In The Modern Catholic Dictionary. Inter Mirifica.  

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