Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Historicism versus History and Spirit: Henri De Lubac on What We Can Learn from Studying Origen

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Historicism versus History and Spirit: Henri De Lubac on What We Can Learn from Studying Origen

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In 1950, when Henri de Lubac first published his book Histoire et Esprit, the least that could be said about it is that it moved against the dominant current of most Scripture scholarship of the day. It helped to show how the study of patristic exegesis of the Bible could be considered not merely relevant but particularly important for de Lubac's time. The choice of topic, the Old Testament exegesis of Origen of Alexandria, was no accident. Interestingly, de Lubac was not interested in a naive return to Origenian exegesis; nor was he interested in a root-and-branch critique of the historical-critical method of exegesis. (1) De Lubac's book put into practice several strands of his theological project, among which were the clarification of the meaning of spiritual exegesis, the attempt to demonstrate the connection between Scripture and Christian living, and a demonstration of continuity in the Church's tradition of reading the Bible spiritually. Not least among the strands was an attempt to combat historicism. (2) For de Lubac, who largely follows Blondel in his understanding of historicism, (3) historicism mistakes the scientific study of history for the actual history itself and therefore, in Blondel's phrasing, reduces "history to the intelligible determinism of phenomena." (4) As a result of emptying history of the interiority of real human life, historicism entails that all human thought is reduced to historical phenomena and therefore completely conditioned by its historical setting. The historicist therefore subsumes thought under the aspect of the determinism of phenomena that he studies. The passing of each historical era, therefore, entails the obsolescence of the thought that arose within it.

This article tracks de Lubac's argument against historicism in History and Spirit and points out the ways in which de Lubac's own practice of reading and learning from Origen undercuts historicism and thereby assists the contemporary exegete to be a better reader, not only of ancient authors like Origen, but also of the inspired text of the Bible. History and Spirit undertakes to study Origen's exegesis historically, to be sure, but in a non-historicist way. In it, Origen's exegesis appears as a resource for discovering the truth rather than as a historical phenomenon completely determined by its predecessors and context. The implication is that contemporary exegetes have something to learn from Origen, not just about Origen, something that can help the contemporary exegete to purify his own modes of thinking in ways that make him a better reader of the Bible. But in what ways exactly, according to de Lubac, can Origen teach the exegete of today? At least in two ways: (i) negatively, by showing that the inevitability of intellectual progress is a false tale, and (2) positively, by illustrating what forgotten wisdom an apprenticeship to, or at least a genuinely sympathetic reading of, Origen has to offer.

This article will therefore proceed by examining some of the difficulties in studying patristic exegesis in a period in which the historicalcritical method is the standard and almost the sole way of studying Scripture, then by examining two contrasting evaluations of Origen's exegesis by Raymond E. Brown and Luke Timothy Johnson in order to illuminate de Lubac's thought (5) and to provide examples of the need for non-historicist approaches to the Bible and the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church. My article will briefly outline some of Brown's objections to patristic exegesis and show how de Lubac meets them in History and Spirit. Next, it will consider Johnson's arguments for the usefulness of the study of patristic exegesis. Finally, it will evaluate Johnson's position against the work of de Lubac, showing that, whereas de Lubac studies Origen in order to apprentice himself to Origen, Johnson's approach to Origen ends up preventing the scholar of the Bible from availing himself of the resources for understanding Scripture that Origen offers. …

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