So What's Catholic about It?: The State of Catholic Biblical Scholarship

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, January 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

So What's Catholic about It?: The State of Catholic Biblical Scholarship


Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal


In what sense might biblical scholarship as practiced in North America these days be called "Catholic," or in what sense should it be Catholic? This century in particular invites such a meditation. From the mid-nineteenth century until Divino afflante spiritu in 1943, many would have regarded the term Roman Catholic biblical scholarship as oxymoronic; maybe it was Catholic, but was it really scholarship? Today, the term Roman Catholic biblical scholarship sounds equally strange; it's scholarship, all right, and of an impressively high order, but what's Roman Catholic about it?

Indeed, the indistinguishability of Catholic scholarship has been a matter of some pride as pioneering figures moved from the margins to the heart of academic respectability, symbolized by the embrace of the "historical-critical method" - an approach that not only sought the "historical" meaning of the text but also considered historical reconstruction as the main point of studying the Bible. Biblical studies exemplified ecumenicity because the historical-critical approach ensured neutrality, objectivity, and lack of sectarian bias in interpretation.

I was born the year Plus XII's Divino afflante spiritu was issued, was a minor seminarian in the Tridentine mode, was a Benedictine novice before Vatican II who still remembers the sonorities and silliness of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Latin. Lured to the study of the New Testament in the monastery, I extravagantly admired Barnabas Ahern and Bruce Vawter and John McKenzie, and cheered the breakthroughs of Roland Murphy and Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer. I entered the thoroughly non-Catholic Ph.D. program in New Testament at Yale as a monk and since have taught in a state university department of religious studies and at two Protestant seminaries.

On the basis of my past twenty years in such settings, and from the perspective - perhaps idiosyncratic - of that experience, more and more these days I ask myself whether the dramatic change in Catholic biblical scholarship has been entirely positive. Let us grant that the triumph of historical criticism among Catholic scholars was a great victory, but is it also only a partial victory? Have we perhaps lost as much as we have won by so wholeheartedly and uncritically changing the character of biblical study? And if so, how do we go about recovering our loss, without relinquishing that hard-won victory?

Sounds like a midlife sort of question. Or perhaps the question of a third-generation immigrant. You remember the classic sequence: the first generation holds onto old country ways in order to maintain identity; the second generation is embarrassed by the old language, old manners, old food, and seeks complete assimilation into the new world; the third generation, realizing what it has lost and sensing that the next generation will have even less, tries to remember how those old recipes went. They don't want to go back to Italy or Mexico, but they worry about their children's future in a world that has nothing Italian or Chicano about it.

When Catholic scholars fought for assimilation into a scholarship dominated by the historical-critical approach, they did not perhaps realize four things that we are now better able to appreciate. First, what was called a method was in fact a model - not only a way of getting at the original voice of the text, but a paradigm with its own specific logic and limitations. Second, this model promised more than it could deliver. Third, it claimed exclusive ownership of academic respectability. Fourth, it was not neutral but carried with it the specific theological presuppositions - which get spelled out in terms of certain mental reflexes - of the Protestantism from which it had derived, presuppositions that tend to get expressed in terms of either/or.

The study of the parables, for example, came down to this: Did Jesus say it or not? In such research the "historical method" seeks more than what the stories might have meant in the symbolic world of the first century, although the method uses such linguistic and social knowledge. …

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