Problems of modern Biblical scholarship

Problems of modern Biblical scholarship

B.A. Santamaria

The campaign for the ordination of women opens up issues far wider than that of women priests. It raises the question of what the Catholic Church can legitimately teach and legitimately do. The impact of modern Biblical scholarship on the understanding of the faith of ordinary intelligent and educated Catholics, is the subject of this feature article.

The philosophical difficulties associated with religious belief have been well canvassed over the centuries. They were never more powerful than at the present moment when, at least in Western societies, the triumph of nihilism ("belief in nothing") seems to be complete: a conclusion evidenced, in the case of Australia, by the fact that 24% of the population recorded themselves in the 1986 Census as having "no religion" or as "religion not stated". The power of peer group pressure, particularly, but not exclusively, over the young, is well attested. The nihilist philosophy exercises the most powerful pressure on the minds of young Catholics (and other Christians) today.

Since belief, at best, is so fragile, it should not be put at needless risk. That this is one of the hazards associated with modern Biblical criticism - although it does not invalidate the discipline as such - was a point made many years ago by C.S. Lewis: "the undermining of the old orthodoxy", he wrote, "has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism."

That issue has been given a certain immediacy as a result of the controversy over the ordination of women. The issues raised, however, range far more widely than female ordination itself and involve the basic constitution of the Church.

There is only one valid argument against the proposal to ordain women. That is the historical fact that in establishing the Church, Christ did not ordain women to the priesthood and that changes in intellectual fashion cannot alter any part of the fundamental basis of the constitution given by Christ Himself.

Against this proposition a characteristic argument has been advanced recently in the Brisbane Catholic Leader (16.2.92) by Fr. Francis Moloney, S.D.B., who is a member of the International Theological Commission. Fr. Moloney's article runs over three columns but his three major propositions seem to be:

1. There is no evidence that Christ ordained anybody; whether men or women.

The most that can be deduced from a study of the New Testament books is that he established "clear antecedents for the priesthood in the early Christian community, in ... calling and forming disciples, the appointment of Apostles, the later emergence of the presbyter-bishop, and the ones who presided over the Eucharist". Fr. Moloney examines various Biblical arguments which are advanced to show that Christ did in fact ordain the Apostles as priests. They are all dismissed as inadequate. "What is the hard evidence for such a tradition?"

2. Fr. Moloney thereupon stresses the importance which Christ gave to women in the company He formed around himself. About that there is no dispute. He concludes that men and women were at least equally important to him; that since no preferred place was offered to men by ordination at the beginning, and since the priesthood is simply a product of historical evolution, (although under the guidance of the Holy Spirit), there is no proven Biblical/historical reason why women cannot also be ordained.

3. Therefore the question - as he puts it - remains "'Should we ordain women?' It (i.e., the question) does, however, indicate the danger of asking purely historical questions. The practice of ordaining only men is an important tradition in the Christian Church. The question which must be asked is: 'How central is this tradition?' Traditions are crucial to Christianity, but they need to be looked at in the light of the Word of God."

The teaching of the Church is that Tradition IS, in fact, "the Word of God." To examine "the Word of God" in the light of "the Word of God" would seem to be a tautology. Furthermore, the question of who finally interprets the Word of God raises a separate issue. Fr. Moloney implicitly, but none the less clearly, advances the proposition that, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the problem of women's ordination still remains unsettled.

It is difficult to accept that view.

The Declaration of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insignores (15 October 1976) was "approved, confirmed and ordered published" by Paul VI himself. It was published on 27 January 1977.

Inter Insignores states that: "The Church's tradition in this matter has been so firm in the course of the centuries that the Magisterium has not felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which was not attacked or to defend a law which was not challenged."

In a later letter to Dr. Coggan, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Paul VI wrote that the Catholic Church had "never thought that priestly or episcopal ordination could be validly conferred on women. The essential reason [is] namely, that by calling only men to the priestly order and ministry in its true sense, the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles."

If this firm exercise of Papal authority had been insufficient, in September 1987, John Paul II closed the argument, in emphatic terms, in his address to the US Bishops in Los Angeles: "As I have stated ... women are not called to the priesthood ... the teaching of the Catholic Church on this point is quite clear." (L'Osservatore Romano 28.9.87)

The responsibility of a member of the International Theological Commission would seem to be twofold. Before an authoritative determination has been made, it is to contribute his own 'input' on particular Biblical or theological questions to assist the Church in reaching an understanding of the Truth. But once Papal authority has been so clearly expressed, as it already has been in the matter of women's ordination, it is surely definitive and it could equally have been expected to be accompanied by a duty to uphold the decision.

To continue to treat such a decision as a still open question could only create a situation in which those agitating for a change would believe that they had the right to ignore the Papal decision; that they had the moral right to continue their campaign and that in so doing they continued to enjoy powerful and legitimate support.

The result has been seen in the life of the Anglican Church in Australia, in which episcopal authority defies the Church's own Constitution, not merely throwing in its own hand, but putting itself at the head of the 'revolution'. That the result would be even more emphatic, should the same development take place within the Catholic communion, goes without saying. The so-called Lefebvre 'schism' would be as nothing to what would follow.

The importance of the dispute over women's ordination is that the principle it raises ranges far more widely than the particular question with which it deals, and extends over the whole field of defined doctrine.

There is, however, one vital distinction arising from the place given to the Bible in the Protestant and Catholic communions respectively.

Traditionally the Protestant position has treated the Bible as the sole rule of Faith. Protestant Biblical scholars were in the field of Biblical studies half-a-century ahead of their Catholic counterparts. Over a century, within the non-Catholic denominations, the so-called Higher Criticism has insistently proposed that events recorded and words spoken in the New Testament cannot automatically be accepted as a reliable or faithful historical record of the events they purport to describe. Not all incidents are recorded by all the documents. The same incident is described differently. Words allegedly used by Christ have two or three versions. Since the Protestant denominations have no other base on which to stand than that of the Bible, for them, the confusion as to the real meaning of the Biblical records has proved fatal. It is not too much to say that the process of fragmentation has accelerated, while the flight from religious observance threatens the extinction of many of them.

Ved Mehta studied the phenomenon in The New Theologian (Harper & Row, 1965) in which he details interviews with Paul Tillich, Bishop John T. Robinson (Honest to God), Rudolf Bultmann and Pastor Bethige who studied Bonhoeffer's papers and who was married to Bonhoeffer's niece.

The end product of the Higher Criticism, Mehta points out, has been Bonhoeffer's theory of "religionless Christianity" which Bultmann and Tillich held in common with him. The late Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John T. Robinson, who shared Bonhoeffer's views and whose best-seller Honest to God sold over one million copies in a few weeks, summed up the consequences of the new theory. Bonhoeffer, he wrote, was "putting the religious world view behind him as childish and pre-scientific." "It means", he added, "that the linchpin is removed from the whole structure of Christianity to date." Paul Tillich is quoted by Mehta as saying, "If somebody wants to fight me about the name, then I would have to admit that I'm just not a Christian" (p.66).

According to Von Balthasar, Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of this century, warned Catholic exegetes against committing the "same stupidity as we did a hundred years ago".

The Catholic Biblical scholar could claim, however, that there were totally different factors which would protect Catholicism from the internal disintegration which Biblical criticism had visited on Protestantism - the twin factors of Tradition and Authority.

Christ's message

He could point out that Christ's message was not originally disseminated through the written word at all - although it strains belief to assert that among the apostles and disciples there would not have been one to have recorded what seemed to them particularly important words and deeds. Yet for several decades after his death there were no written Gospels. The Church lived by traditions established by those who were alive while Christ was alive. In point of time, Tradition was prior to the final establishment of the New Testament canon. The New Testament took its final form only when a wide variety of writings were tested in the light of the pre-existing Tradition. Both Tradition and the Bible were thus regarded as sources of religious truth.

Inevitably this raises the question as to who would decide what was and what was not an authentic record of events; which Books were inspired; which doctrines were de fide. That authority was vested in the bishops gathered in the great Councils, down to Chalcedon (AD 446-452) and beyond. In this regard St Irenaeus of Lyons (born circa AD 135) who was the disciple of St Polycarp, who was in turn the disciple of St John himself, pointed to the special authority of the Roman See.

The attacks of the Gnostics and of other major heretics during the first four centuries were even more ferocious than those of the modernists of this century. Yet the Church survived. But how?

"Upon no other hypothesis than a general belief in the traditional nature of Christian teaching, and a general acceptance of the claim of the rulers (i.e., the bishops) to decide what was the tradition, can the passage of the Church, scatheless, through this crisis, be explained" (Philip Hughes, History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 89-90).

Fr. Raymond Brown, who enjoys an enviable reputation in the field of Biblical studies proposes the view that while the New Testament can certainly be relied upon as an historical source for certain Christian truths, e.g., that Christ was born, lived in Palestine, taught in parables, was crucified and rose from the dead, it cannot ultimately be relied on as supplying historical authority for certain others. These others, for which its authority is said to be uncertain, include such fundamental truths as the Virginal Conception of Christ, the Infancy narratives in general, the divine institution of the priesthood and of the episcopate. The New Testament, as a historical source, cannot be relied on to establish the divine institution of the Papacy, nor the proposition that Christ set out to establish a new religion distinct from Judaism, nor even that the Gospels can be used to prove that Christ considered himself the Son of God.

Facing the charge that these opinions are unorthodox, Fr. Brown corrects his critics by reminding them that Catholic teaching rests not merely on the "historicity" of the New Testament, but equally on Tradition, when it is pronounced on definitively by the Church. Hence even if, as he wrote, the New Testament does not provide a firm historical base for particular propositions of faith, once they have been defined by legitimate authority, he accepts thein. It is therefore scandalous to impugn his orthodoxy as a Catholic.

On this basis, his personal orthodoxy is established by means of criteria open to all Catholics.

Yet it is somewhat difficult to accept the logic of some of his positions. If, as he clearly says, some of the most sacred events described in the New Testament - which have always been accepted by Catholics - cannot be established purely from the New Testament accounts, is it not much more difficult to accept unrecorded events contained in an unwritten Tradition? If one cannot rely on the substantial accuracy of events stated as facts in the New Testament books written within a few decades after Christ's death, (or, in many cases, the words attributed to Christ), even if the various accounts differ in detail, how can one attach greater importance to the speculative interpretations of Biblical scholars who are studying and writing, nearly two thousand years later?

The greater problem, however, lies elsewhere. On the basis described above, Fr Brown's personal orthodoxy is protected. Nevertheless, a problem remains. The vast majority of those who read Fr Brown read much of what he writes as establishing the "unhistorical" nature of some of the most sacred events and words insofar as they are recorded in the New Testament. These readers either do not know or do not understand the intricate relationship between the Scriptures and Tradition, as defined by Authority. Perhaps they should, but they don't. They are inevitably influenced by his expressed doubts or denials as to the meaning of Scripture, while many remain unaware of what he affirms by virtue of his fidelity to Tradition and to Authority. It is not unnatural that many of these should come to the view that if there is no certain Biblical evidence for an event, then it is simply uncertain whether the event - or the words recorded - actually happened at all.

The Catholic exegete may perhaps fully understand the situation of the threefold sources of doctrine. But with many seminary professors and seminarians, nuns, brothers and moderately well-educated laity, his doubts concerning the validity of Scripture sources are easily read as doubts as to the validity of the Catholic truths themselves.

Whether justly or otherwise, the result of much contemporary Biblical exegesis is to confirm C. S. Lewis' remark at the beginning of this article. It also explains the situation described by Thomas Sheehan, formerly Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago, which occasioned so much anger within the Catholic academic establishment.

"In Roman Catholic seminaries", he wrote, "it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the messianic claims that the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing that he was Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion.

"One would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who pre-existed from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being. Strictly speaking, the Catholic exegetes say, Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity and never mentioned it in his preaching.

"Nor did Jesus know that his mother, Mary, had remained a virgin in the very act of conceiving him, let alone, as Thomas Aquinas thought, that she had delivered him while her hymen remained intact. Most likely Mary told Jesus what she herself knew of his origins: [born] in Nazareth, indeed without the ministrations of angels, shepherds and late-arriving wise men bearing gifts. She could have told her son the traditional nativity story only if she had managed to read, long before they were written, the inspiring unhistorical Christmas legends that first appeared in the gospels of Matthew and Luke fifty years after her son had died.

"Moreover, according to the consensus, although Jesus had a reputation of a faith healer during his life, it is very likely that he performed very few such miracles, perhaps only two. (Probably he never walked on water.) And it seems that he did not know that he was supposed to establish the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic church with St Peter the first in a long line of infallible popes.

"In fact, Jesus had no intention of breaking with Judaism in order to constitute a separate Church. Rather he restricted his mission to Jews and called on his disciples to repent, to celebrate the dawning of God's kingdom and perhaps to expect the imminent arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the 'Son of Man' whom Jesus never identified with himself."

Whether ALL of these teachings are propounded in most Catholic seminaries is, of course, a matter for investigation. But that many are, in seminaries and training houses, is a matter of common observation. If much of this is what future priests, religious and teachers are taught, there is justification in the acid comment by Professor Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, who looks beyond the fine points which preserve the personal orthodoxy of many Biblical scholars to the effect of their scholarship on others, perhaps less qualified or endowed.

Not recognisably Christian

"Views like those commended by Sheehan", writes Dummett, "might be combined with some religious belief in which Jesus played an important role, but not with anything recognisable as the Christian religion. If, in speaking of the Son of Man, Jesus was referring to himself, then the Gospel accounts of his words are hopelessly garbled, and we cannot claim to know what he taught ... But, if Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah, we ought not give him the title of 'Christ', nor claim that the Messiah has already come.

"If he did not believe himself divine, then we have no ground to do so, and hence commit idolatry in praying to him. If he knew nothing of the Trinity, then we know nothing of the Trinity, and have no warrant whatever for supposing that there is a Trinity.

"If he intended to found no community, then the Church has no standing and is an imposter institution.

"If he conferred no authority on the apostles, no bishops, no priests and no popes have any status not allotted by men and rescindable by men.

"It is easy to understand how someone may come to accept the views reported by Sheehan; it is a straightforward case of loss of faith ...

"What, without lack of charity, we may legitimately find astonishing is this: that people who have adopted positions that imply that, from the earliest times, the Catholic Church, claiming to have a mission from God to safeguard divinely revealed truth, has taught and insisted on the acceptance of falsehoods, falsehoods enshrined in her most sacred books, and is, accordingly, as much of a fraud as her enemies have always maintained, should think it proper to teach such views to those in training for the priesthood.

"And, indeed, their actions are helping to transform the Church into something distinctly fraudulent.

"The monolithic Church was never a reality and is not an ideal; but the divergence which now obtains between what the Catholic Church purports to believe and what large or important sections Of it in fact believe ought, in my view, to be tolerated no longer; not if there is to be a rationale for belonging to that Church; not if there is to be any hope of reunion with the other half of Christendom; not if the Catholic Church is not to be a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world" (New Blackfriars, October, 1987).

The position would greatly improve if everyone - scholars as well as students - were to conduct themselves according to the spirit and the letter of the Decree on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council (n.19):

"Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up (cf. Acts 1:1-2). For, after the Ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with that fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed. The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesised or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus. Whether they relied on their own memory and recollections or on the testimony of those who 'from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word,' their purpose in writing was that we might know the 'truth' concerning the things of which we have been informed (cf.Lk 1:2-4)."

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