Monday, November 09, 2009

"Tolle Lege" this! Catholic Bible Scholarship since V-II

"Let's be blunt. Catholic Biblical scholarship since Vatican II hasn't been just bad. It's been a disaster."

So begins Joe Martin's rapid-fire review of The Church And The Bible: Official Documents of the Catholic Church,edited by Dennis J. Murphy, MSC (St. Pauls; Alba House; 2nd rev. enl. ed., 2007) and Aidan Nichols' Lovely, Like Jerusalem: The Fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ and the Church(Ignatius Press, 2007).

Joe Martin, "A Good Commentary is (not) Hard to Find: On Bible Scholars + Scholarship, Lovely and Otherwise" [click on "Download" to call up the PDF file], continues:
Most of what is written encourages skepticism, despite avowals of allegiance to “the analogy of faith.” And for all the bowing at the altar of “the indispensable results of Higher Criticism,” does anyone honestly believe guys like Raymond E. Brown have helped versus hurt belief in the essential veracity of Scripture? Does anyone really think that The New Jerome Commentary, when it tries to tear Biblical books into umpteen scraps of parchment by umpteen anonymous authors, would make its namesake happy?

Instead, what unfortunately comes to mind when surveying the Catholic landscape is this indictment from an old Protestant evangelist: “When Satan gets into the pulpit, or the theological chair, and pretends to teach Christianity, when in reality he is corrupting it… pretends to be teaching Biblical Introduction, when, in reality he is making the Bible out to be a book that is not worthy of being introduced -- then look out for him; he is at his most dangerous work” (R.A. Torrey, What the Bible Teaches, 517).

Off-putting Fundamentalist hyperbole? Before you summarily dismiss such characterizations, consider how most Catholic schools can demolish students’ faith after only one semester in Biblical studies. Or better yet, suppress your ‘RadTrad’ prejudices for a few more minutes and read the vilified Fr. Brian Harrison over at Christian Order. Or, taste the offerings of a Catholic publisher as compared to the academically challenging but still faith-affirming offerings from Inter-Varsity Press. Even San Francisco’s normally topflight Ignatius Press for a while marketed an Old Testament Introduction -- A Consuming Fire -- that seemed to consign traditional authorship theories to the furnace as often as not (no surprise that it quickly fell out of print). Things are so bad that when the Pope himself writes a book that simply confirms his belief in the basic New Testament narrative, the first response from the faithful is what? A collective sigh of relief!

But on the horizon there are intermittent flashes of light. For starters, Ignatius Press is now readying the New Testament installment of Scott Hahn’s Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.Hahn is nothing short of a phenomenon, a sort of one man counter-assault on the faux Biblical studies hoisted upon us by a liberal zeitgeist in the ugly fallout from Vatican II. This guy also honestly believes in Inerrancy. The kind confirmed by "Providentissimus Deus" … Yes, way! Hahn is so congenially and over-the-top orthodox -- and so beyond what many have hoped or prayed for -- that his sales prove readers ready to forgive even his unending stream of painful puns.

Then there is The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,a new series from Baker Academic (Baker being one of the Big Three of Grand Rapids' formidable Calvinistic publishing triumverate, but any port in a storm, right?). The two launch volumes are marked by unimaginative jackets and the crass pull-quote and graphic-heavy page layouts that pop culture demands. But with an A-list of proposed authors, the project also promises to consistently take the Bible’s writers at their word - so we’ll take it.

The Navarre Bibleis an imposing series originating in Spain under the auspices of Opus Dei. With that Dan Brown-like intriguing association, you'd think the English versions would be hot property in American bookstores post TDC--and you'd be wrong. In fact, you won't spot them in mainstream venues. Which is too bad, given the commentaries' attractive design, generous quotations from saints (especially Escriva), *and* parallel English/Latin Scripture columns... Or maybe it's the presence of that little-loved Latin that explains their scarcity? Anyway, the books can be as friendly as the current Pontifical Biblical Commission when it comes to dated source theories, but they are also thoroughly Catholic, fare well enough in translation, and have a nice devotional bent. Verdict? Supernumerary approved.

And from genteel Charlottesville, Robert Louis Wilken is shepherding, at snail’s pace, The Church's Bible. The three volumes to date in this series promise a patristic resourcement project that would do Henri de Lubac proud. If, that is, it could only gather more steam. In the meantime, Catholics who hold their noses can avail themselves instead of Inter Varsity’s Ancient Christian Commentaryseries, a project animated by a similar intent (if also marked by predictable Evangelical blinders, as Robin Darling Young -- apparently having a bad day -- pointed out [eliciting lively discussion at First Things]).

Some of the most striking signs of life come from two recent volumes that never seem to have quite registered on the radar. The Church And The Bible: Official Documents of the Catholic Church,edited by Dennis J. Murphy, MSC, originated in India, an apostolate that appears healthier for its distance from the florid vocabulary of disbelief often floated in American seminaries. It’s a fat doorstop of a book claiming to collect all the official documents on Scripture, up to and including recent addresses by John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Everything’s been freshly translated, but otherwise there’s nothing very new there. What is arrestingly new to anyone familiar with the climate of scholarship over the past forty years is the attitude reflected in two of the editor’s lengthy essays:

"Exegetes or theologians carried away by an earlier enthusiasm may find it difficult to be open to a new one or to the re-emergence, even in modified forms, of ideas that they had earlier rejected,” warns Murphy. But “current, widely accepted opinions in theology and exegesis also need to be wary of various subtle and not so subtle forms of authoritarianism.” Can we get an A-men?

“If we can put aside our prejudices and return to [older encyclicals and pronouncements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission] and their history, they may help us avoid two extremes: an enclosed mutual-admiration-society of either the right or the left; and a consequence of that -- failure to respect the academic right of other points of view to exist.” Even more, “The hopes and fears that earlier generations… had about the study of the Bible in general and the historical-critical method in particular” may have had more merit than today’s academic guild cares to admit. “It is only by looking into the past as well as into the present that we can see whether those fears were true or baseless, exaggerated or clear-sighted; and above all whether we have furthered the hopes that Pope Gregory expressed… ‘Seek, I beg you, to meditate every day on the words of your Creator. Learn the heart of God in the words of God.’’’

A helpful guide toward that end would be a second recent book, Lovely, Like Jerusalem,a literate and concise introduction to the Old Testament. Aidan Nichols, OP, meets Pope Gregory’s clarion call with a modest trumpet blast of his own, calling Bible-believing Catholics back to sanity as Frank Sheed would have defined it, to read the text with an eye for what is really there. It’s hard to recall any priest since Hubert Von Zeller [see bibliography below] whose writing on the Old Testament text seems so matter-of-factly helpful and at the same time so spiritually clear-sighted.

When online Ignatius Insight’s Carl Olsen asked Nichols about his heavy reliance on non-Catholic theologians, Nichols was candid. “By the end of the twentieth century Catholic exegesis [had] became indistinguishable from [liberal] Protestant,” he claimed. “Until this situation has changed… the best course of action is to select biblical commentators of whatever denomination whose work seems to accord best with the Catholic understanding of Scripture as found in Tradition.” Considering Nichols heavy usage of Anglican and Evangelical commentators, the appropriate response from Catholic readers here might reasonably be “Ouch!” Nichols essentially disinvites to the party those inappropriately dressed, which in this case means most of the post-sixities Catholic academy. In the past when skeptics expressed bewilderment at Evangelicals’ simplistic Biblical devotion, an oft-heard quip in replay was “Well, that’s what you get for reading someone else’s mail.” Confessional labels notwithstanding, that pretty much seems to reflect something of the sentiment at work here: here is a priest writing for fellow family members in the faith, those who share a real bloodline of belief, and not merely a tenure review board. He recognizes those experts who are striving to see through the eyes of faith, but spends little time amongst those who cannot help but encounter Scripture as a sealed book.

Touching down lightly on the postmodern angst over Genesis, creation, and Mosaic authorship, Nichols says that the “historical minimalism in fashion today in many departments of Old Testament studies is not an adequate basis on which to read Genesis as Scripture….” He continues: “Of course no book of Scripture is history in the sense of a Ph.D. thesis on an historical subject in a modern University. That does not mean it cannot give a reliable account of past events, especially when those events were religiously crucial to the minds of the people whose lives they affected.” With scholarly feet thus firmly planted, he takes readers through the Torah, the Wisdom literature, and the Prophets, stopping as well for a quick scan of the Apocryphal books. His especially strong section on the Psalms as a semitic prayer book should revivify the Mass readings for more than a few readers who subsequently sit through Sunday services.

Because his first reflex is to take Scripture at its word, Nichols’ entire tone comes off in marked contrast to so much critical output, reminding us from just where we have drifted. The Jesuit John Courtney Murray may now have his naysayers for contributions to Vatican II on religious authority and pluralism, but in the old America magazine he also weighed in giving unqualified endorsement to the highly traditional commentaries of Rev. John Steinmueller as “scientific.” Back then, such was the mainstream. Even a bit more recently in 1954 Romano Guardini would give deference to details in Scripture by alluding to “the dignity lent them by the Word of God.” In Lovely Like Jerusalem that attitude is admirably and intelligently reclaimed. A first portent of the sanity comes in the chapter on the Pentateuch, where Nichols appears to recommend Gordon J. Wenham’s fisking of the JEPD hypothesis. But the real shocker is on page 46, where he manages to bring the cocktail chatter at the Catholic Theological Society to an uncomfortable halt by lending an Oxford don’s credibility to the unaskable question: “But was there a Second Isaiah?” Come again? What’s more, in answer he suggests an unblinking negative.

The predictable rejoinder from the zeitgest is typified in one amazon.com reviewer’s lament: “Where is the honest inquiry here?” (Perhaps Jospeh Fitzmyer could enlist that online poster as a peritus for the oft-imagined Council of Vatican III.) A better assessment is that offered by Matthew Levering on the back jacket: “Other than Pope Benedict XVI, no theologian writing today has mastered so well the approach to Scripture set forth by such giants as Jean Danielou, Louis Bouyer, and Henri de Lubac.” High praise indeed. And warranted.

All of this is provided to pique interest in Nichol’s spiritual introduction to the Old Testament as a precursor to the New. Lovely lives up to its title’s chosen adjective, managing to be interesting, academic, and orthodox all at the same time, Nichols fleshes out why familiarity with the Old Covenant provides the necessary defining backdrop for the New: without such a perspective, the Church itself will remain “opaque” to the believer, and the Mass at the cognitive level more a veiled ritual than a mediating sacrament. What the Bible presents is two testaments, two contents -- but one reality. With Scripture, the Fathers, and an ecumenical consensus as markers, that is the proposition staked out here, one that is both pre- and post-conciliar.

Hans von Balthasar wrote that that “There is no greater unity in the world, according to God’s plan, than that between the Old and the New Covenant, except the unity of Jesus Christ himself who embraces the unity of the covenants in his own unity." And there, concurs Nichols, lies “the tragedy of Israel in a Christian perspective. [She is] doubly isolated. Thanks to her election, she is cut off by her uniqueness from those interrelations of nations and ethnicities that be ‘wholly expressed in philosophical and universal terms.’ But at the same time, by a failure of response to electing grace, she is cut off from her ‘sister people,’ Christians. She is separated from them by her ‘refusal to allow the prophetic principle its transcendent culmination in a fulfillment given by God alone’ … This isolation adversely affects the Church. It is the ‘first and fundamental schism.’"

With Lovely Like Jerusalem, there is -- at least for Catholic readers -- no longer any reason for such a cleavage to exist. Or for a larger audience to miss the salvation pictures foreshadowed in high definition in the O.T. A couple of decades ago Evangelical Edith Schaeffer wrote Christianity Is Jewish. Exercising noble negligence, Nichols here more than substantiates that rather brash-sounding claim. It’s hard to think of a better recent book to suggest for your Want List, especially as Advent approaches. To attempt some improvisational Gen Y Latinization, Tolle Lege this!

For further reading

For the more traditionally-hardwired, the stalwarts at Roman Catholic Books keep a fistful of worthy Old Testament contenders in the ring. These include A.E. Breen’s hefty A General And Critical Introduction To The Study Of Holy Scripture,(1897; rpt. Kessinger Publishing, 2007), Edward Kissane’s The Book of Job,(New York: Sheed and Ward,1946), Hubert Von Zeller’s Isaias,(London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1938), and Mary Ryan’s Key to the Psalms(Liturgical Press, 1957). Also older but on point is John Laux’s Introduction to the Bible(New York: Benziger Brothers, 1938; rpt., Tan Books & Publishers, June 1992)

Back to newer fare, Peter Kreeft’s You Can Understand The Bible(Ignatius Press, 2005) is in many aspects as good as anything he’s ever done, which is saying a lot. Lastly, it would be remiss not to again reference Scott Hahn. He may periodically get pummeled by friendly forces over at New Oxford Review and assorted com boxes, but the bruises have not left him so bereft or bedridden that he has not still been able to grace us all with Doubleday’s Catholic Bible Dictionary(Doubleday, 2009, pictured right). Fifteen plus years earlier Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, poking fun at the smothering number of experts and exactitudes swarming from the pages of Doubleday’s self-consciously definitive definitive Anchor Bible Dictionary,mused that “it may be the case in biblical studies that more and more are saying less and less to fewer and fewer.” Hahn happily has worked at reversing such murky tides, and it’s hard to miss the irony in Doubelday again being the publishing agent. This Dictionary is meaning and message-minded, anchored in orthodox relevance versus pained scholarly skepticism, and sports a classy yet easy to read, large print layout to match its reader-friendly style. Bibliographical references of an extended sort would meet a real need, if also likely fatten it up to a two-volume affair, perhaps explaining their absence. And the actual number of contributors is unclear. So for now we will simply ask Dr. Hahn to pass along thanks for all responsible for such a marvelous gift.
[Joe Martin is Professor of Graphic Design & Communication at Hampton University, where he keeps a watchful eye on students' leading and kerning. He is also completing a dissertation on "A Tale of Two Francises,” a comparative study of the rhetorical apologetics of Francis Schaeffer and Frank Sheed]


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