Good Exegesis in Two Steps

I knew Pope Benedict’s third volume of Jesus of Nazareth was going to fulfill my expectations already by the second paragraph of its foreword. One of the major themes in Benedict’s exegesis over the years has been his insistence on the necessity of a two-pronged approach to interpreting Scripture, an approach which is relatively little known and all too rarely practiced in the Church. In the foreword to his third installment treating the life of Jesus, he insisted on this same method just as he had insisted upon it in the forewords to his previous two books. In the words of the Pontiff:

I am convinced that good exegesis involves two sages. Firstly one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their text in their own day–the historical component of exegesis. But it is not sufficient to leave the text in the past and thus relegate it to history. The second question posed by good exegesis must be: is what I read here true? Does it concern me? If so, how? With a text like the Bible, whose ultimate and fundamental author, according to our faith, is God himself, the question regarding the here and now of things past is undeniably included in the task of exegesis. The seriousness of the historical quest is in no way diminished by this: on the contrary, it is enhanced.

The governing idea of Benedict’s exegetical plan is really quite simple, but by no means simplistic. First, to understand the Bible, you first have to appreciate what it meant within its original context. Scripture was written by the Holy Spirit, but it was also written by human authors who had particular aims within their unique historical context. According to the Holy Father, we do violence to Scripture if we forget its place within the history of salvation, what God wanted to achieve for his Chosen People through it, and what challenges the sacred word presents for us now looking back on that history.

Second, for Benedict good exegesis requires that we let the Bible speak not only for itself within its original context, but that it speak also to us today. Here the things of the past which we encounter in the first step of exegesis take on significance in the here and now. We bring the Bible to prayer and patiently meditate on it. We ask how its message applies to our lives today, how it can transform us in the concrete circumstances of our daily existence.

In this post, I am simply articulating the basic principles at stake here. I have an entire book forthcoming on the subject, and on this blog you will see me talk about it quite a bit as I continue my posts on Jesus of Nazareth. For now, let me conclude this first post by offering you some other examples of Benedict teaching the same principles in other works:

You can call the patristic-medieval exegetical approach Method A. The historical-critical approach, the modern approach, is Method B. What I am calling for is not a return to Method A, but a development of a Method C, taking advantage of the strengths of both Method A and Method B, but cognizant of the shortcomings of both. (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis)

The historical-critical method–let me repeat–is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith. This method is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God. The inner nature of the method points beyond itself and contains within itself an openness to complementary methods. In these words from the past, we can discern the question concerning their meaning for today; a voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words. (Jesus, Vol. 1)

[A] properly developed faith hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limitations, so as to form a methodological whole. Naturally, this combination of two quite different types of hermeneutic is an art that needs to be constantly remastered. I would not presume to claim that this combination of the two hermeneutics is already fully accomplished in my book. But I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction. Fundamentally this is a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican Council, a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far. (Jesus, Vol. 2)

The historical-critical method will always remain one dimension of interpretation. Vatican II made this clear. On the one hand, it presents the essential elements of the historical method as a necessary part of access to the Bible. At the same time, though, it adds that the Bible has to be read in the same Spirit in which it was written. It has to be read in its wholeness, in its unity. And that can be done only when we approach it as a book of the People of God progressively advancing toward Christ. What is needed is not simply a break with the historical method, but a self-critique of the historical method; a self-critique of historical reason that takes cognizance of its limits and recognizes the compatibility of a type of knowledge that derives from faith; in short, we need a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith. (Light of the World)

[I]t would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery.” (Verbum Domini)

Scientific exegesis and lectio divina are both necessary and complementary in order to seek, through the literal meaning, the spiritual meaning that God wants to communicate to us today. (Angelus, October 26, 2008)

Examples abound where Benedict goes on to put these ideas into practice in his various works. If you have any other examples of him speaking in similar terms, please post them.