The publication of Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI has been gratefully and enthusiastically received by many thoughtful people who love the Bible and find it an essential source of the Christian life. As a decree of deliverance, an emancipation proclamation if you will, the foreword of this significant work is a bright light of the dawn of a new day. It is the gift of a great theological mind as he approaches the end of his amazingly fruitful life.
It is a deliverance not from the historical-critical method of exegesis as such, which Pope Benedict calls an indispensable tool, but from the exclusive and unbalanced use of this method. The historical-critical method has been applied so uncritically that many priests have no knowledge or awareness of its limitations, nor do they see any other valid approach to the meaning of the Gospel narrative. The Pope invokes one of the most respected practitioners of the historical-critical method, Rudolph Schnackenburg, who at the end of his life concluded: ''a reliable view of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth through scientific effort with historical-critical methods can be only inadequately achieved.''
The Holy Father points out the inherent limitations of this method because it is a purely historical one, leaving one stuck in the past, and also the uncertainty of the historical-critical approach because of the immense variety of conflicting opinions that it may generate. Another limitation I have observed is the unwillingness on the part of many of its practitioners to engage in any serious question of the method's limitations. I exempt here some scholars, like Father Raymond Brown, who was humble enough to discuss many questions with the likes of me and others who were not experts in the field.
I have never been able to discuss seriously the accuracy of the use of the word ''scientific'' by those who follow this method exclusively. I wrote a dissertation using the scientific method, and it is very far from the usual procedures of historical criticism. An easily understood example is that in scientific exploration, negative hypotheses are entirely avoided, that is, no attempt is made to prove that something did not or could not happen. Proponents of ''the historical Jesus,'' however, do this as a matter of course.
The Holy Father takes the whole discussion of New Testament scholarship beyond this exclusively historical view with all its limitations and powerfully refocuses our vision on the fact of God. Yes, God, speaking to us through the canonical body of writing, which the Christian people have accepted as the source of divinely providential guidance for us on our way to eternal life. He makes faith an essential ingredient in biblical interpretation.
I am most excited about this book because the Pope takes us with profound theological insights from the Lord's Baptism to His Transfiguration in such a way that we come to an experience of Christ in both His divinity and humanity. The Holy Father points out that attempts to focus on the ''historical Jesus'' have left ''the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in His divinity shape the image we have of Him.'' He notes that such ideas have ''penetrated deeply into the minds of the Christian people'' and have placed in doubt the ''point of reference'' of faith. This has led to the loss of ''intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, [and it] is in danger of clutching at thin air.'' This book is an unqualified defense of Christian devotion, which has suffered greatly because of the anemic figure called ''the historical Jesus.''
I encourage everyone to get a copy of this book. Sit down with a pencil, go over the introduction carefully, and work your way prayerfully and attentively through the magnificent pages on the life of Christ. Younger priests are likely to find this a totally new experience, and older priests will remember days when you did not have to hide your personal devotion to Jesus Christ.
More on this book in issues to come. In the meantime, if you need help in doing what I have suggested, order a copy of The Lord by Romano Guardini, with preface by Joseph Ratzinger (Gateway, 2001), a great classic of biblical theology. TP
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