Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Lecture delivered on 27th January 1988 at Saint Peter's Church in New York, New York.
Wladimir Solowjew's History of the Antichrist, the eschatological enemy
of the Redeemer recommended himself to believers, among other things,
by the fact that he had earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen
and had written an exegetical work which was recognized as pioneering
in the field. The Antichrist, a famous exegete! With this paradox
Solowjew sought to shed light on the ambivalence inherent in biblical
exegetical methodology for almost a hundred years now. To speak of the
crisis of the historical-critical method today is practically a truism.
This, despite the fact that it had gotten off to so optimistic a start.
that newfound freedom of thought into which the Enlightenment had
launched headlong, dogma or church doctrine appeared as one of the real
impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself. But freed
from this impertinent presupposition, and equipped with a methodology
which promised strict objectivity, it seemed that we were finally going
to be able to hear again the clear and unmistakable voice of the
original message of Jesus. Indeed, what had been long forgotten was to
be brought into the open once more: the polyphony of history could be
heard again, rising from behind the monotone of traditional
interpretations. As the human element in sacred history became more and
more visible, the hand of God, too, seemed larger and closer.
however, the picture became more and more confused. The various
theories increased and multiplied and separated one from the other and
became a veritable fence which blocked access to the Bible for all the
uninitiated. Those who were initiated were no longer reading the Bible
anyway, but were dissecting it into the various parts from which it had
to have been composed. The methodology itself seems to require such a
radical approach: it cannot stand still when it "scents" the operation
of man in sacred history. It must try to remove all the irrational
residue and clarify everything. Faith itself is not a component of this
method. Nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events. But
since God and divine action permeate the entire biblical account of
history, one is obliged to begin with a complicated anatomy of the
scriptural word. On one hand there is the attempt to unravel the
various threads (of the narrative) so that in the end one holds in
one's hands what is the "really historical," which means the purely
human element in events. On the other hand, one has to try to show how
it happened that the idea of God became interwoven through it all. And
so it is that another "real" history is to be fashioned in place of the
one given. Underneath the existing sources — that is to say, the
biblical books themselves — we are supposed to find more original
sources, which in turn become the criteria for interpretation. No one
should really be surprised that this procedure leads to the sprouting
of ever more numerous hypotheses until finally they turn into a jungle
of contradictions. In the end, one no longer learns what the text says,
but what it should have said, and by which component parts this can be
traced back through the text. 
Such a state of affairs could
not but generate a countereaction. Among cautious systematic
theologians, there began the search for a theology which was as
independent as possible from exegesis.  But what possible value can
a theology have which is cut off from its own foundations? So it was
that a radical approach called "fundamentalism" began to win supporters
who brand as false in itself and contradictory any application of the
historical-critical method to the Word of God. They want to take the
Bible again in its literal purity, just as it stands and just as the
average reader understands it to be. But when do I really take the
Bible "literally"? And which is the "normative" understanding which
holds for the Bible in all its particularity? Certainly fundamentalism
can take as a precedent the position of the Bible itself, which has
selected as its own hermeneutical perspective the viewpoint of the
"little ones," the "pure of heart."  The problem still remains,
however, that the demand for "literalness" and "realism" is not at all
so univocal as it might first appear. In grappling with the problem of
hermeneutics, another alternative process presents itself: the
explanation of the historical process of the development of forms is
only one part of the duty of the interpreter; his understanding within
the world of today is the other. According to this idea, one should
investigate the conditions for understanding itself in order to come to
a visualization of the text which would get beyond this historical
"autopsy."  In fact, as it stands, this is quite correct, for one
has not really understood something in its entirety simply because one
knows how to explain the circumstances surrounding its beginning.
how is it possible to come to an understanding which on one hand is not
based on some arbitrary choice of particular aspects, but on the other
hand allows me to hear the message of the text and not something coming
from my own self? Once the methodology has picked history to death by
its dissection, who can reawaken it so that it can live and speak to
me? Let me put it another way: if "hermeneutics" is ever to become
convincing, the inner harmony between historical analysis and
hermeneutical synthesis must be first found.
To be sure, great
strides have already been made in this direction, but I must honestly
say that a truly convincing answer has yet to be formulated. If
Rudolph Bultmann used the philosophy of Martin Heidegger as a vehicle
to represent the biblical word, then that vehicle stands in accord with
his reconstruction of the essence of Jesus' message. But was this
reconstruction itself not likewise a product of his philosophy? How
great is its credibility from a historical point of view? In the end,
are we listening to Jesus, or to Heidegger, with this kind of an
approach to understanding? Still, one can hardly deny that Bultmann
seriously grappled with the issue of increasing our access to the
Bible's message. But today, certain forms of exegesis are appearing
which can only be explained as symptoms of the disintegration of
interetation and hermeneutics. Materialist and feminist exegesis,
whatever else may be said about them, do not even claim to be an
understanding of the text itself in the manner in which it was
originally intended. At best they may be seen as an expression of the
view that the Bible's nessage is in and of itself inexplicable, or else
that it is meaningless for life in today's world. In this sense, they
are no longer interested in ascertaining the truth, but only in
whatever will serve their own particular agenda. They go on to justify
this combination of agenda with biblical material by saying that the
many religious elements help strengthen the vitality of the treatment.
Thus historical method can even serve as a cloak for such maneuvers
insofar as it dissects the Bible into discontinuous pieces, which are
then able to be put to new use and inserted into a new montage
altogether different from the original biblical ontext. 
The Central Problem
this situation does not occur everywhere with the same starkness. The
methods are often applied with a good deal of prudence, and the radical
hermeneutics of the kind I have just described have already been
disavowed by a large number of exegetes. In addition, the search for
remedies for basic errors of modern methods has been going on for some
time now. The scholarly search to find a better synthesis between the
historical and theological methods, between higher criticism and church
doctrine, is hardly a recent phenomenon. This can be seen from the fact
that hardly anyone today would assert that a truly pervasive
understanding of this whole problem has yet been found which takes into
account both the undeniable insights uncovered by the historical
method, while at the same time overcoming its limitations and
disclosing them in a thoroughly relevant hermeneutic. At least the work
of a whole generation is necessary to achieve such a thing. What
follows, therefore, will be an attempt to sketch out a few distinctions
and to point out a few first steps that might be taken toward an
There should be no particular need to
demonstrate that on the one hand it is useless to take refuge in an
allegedly pure, literal understanding of the Bible. On the other hand,
a merely positivistic and rigid ecclesiasticism would not do either.
Just to challenge individual theories, especially the more daring and
dubious ones, is likewise insufficient. Likewise dissatisfying is the
middle-ground position of trying to pick out in each case as soon as
possible the answers from modern exegesis which are more in keeping
with tradition. Such foresight may sometimes prove profitable, but it
does not grasp the problem at its root and in fact remains somewhat
arbitrary if it cannot make its own arguments intelligible. In order to
arrive at a real solution, we must get beyond disputes over details and
press on to the foundations. What we need might be called a criticism
of criticism. By this I mean not some exterior analysis, but a
criticism based on the inherent potential of all critical thought to
We need a self-criticism of the historical
method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself, in
continuity with and in development of the famous critique of reason by
Immanuel Kant. Let me assure you at once that I do not presume to
accomplish so vast an undertaking in the short time we have together.
But we must make some start, even if it is by way of just preliminary
explorations in what is still a largely uncharted land. The
self-critique of historical method would have to begin, it seems, by
reading its conclusions in a diachronic manner so that the appearence
of a quasi-clinical-scientific certainty is avoided. It has been this
appearance of certainty which has caused its conclusions to be accepted
so far and wide.
In fact, at the heart of the
historical-critical method lies the effort, to establish in the field
of history a level of methodological precision which would yield
conclusions of the same certainty as in the field of the natural
sciences. But what one exegete takes as definite can only be called
into question by other exegetes. This is a practical rule which is
presupposed as plainly and self-evidently valid. Now, if the natural
science model is to be followed without hesitation, then the importance
of the Heisenberg principle should be applied to the
historical-critical method as well. Heisenberg has shown that the
outcome of a given experiment is heavily influenced by the point of
view of the observer. So much is this the case that both observer's
questions and observations continue to change themselves in the natural
course of events.  When applied to the witness of history, this
means that interpretation can never be just a simple reproduction of
history's being, "as it was." The word "interpretation" gives us a clue
to the question itself: every exegesis requires an "inter" an entering
in and a being "inter" or between things; this is the involvement of
the interpreter himself. Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It
is not the uninvolved who comes to knowledge; rather, interest itself
is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.
then, is the question: how does one come to be interested, not so that
the self drowns out the voice of the other, but in such a way that one
develops a kind of inner understanding for things of the past, and ears
to listen to the word they speak to us today? 
which Heisenberg enunciated for experiments in the natural sciences has
a very important application to the subject-object relationship. The
subject is not to be neatly isolated in a world of its own apart from
any interaction. One can only try to put it in the best possible state.
This is all the more the case with regard to history since physical
processes are in the present and repeatable. Moreover, historical
processes deal with the impenetrability and the depths of the human
being himself, and are thus even more susceptible to the influence of
the perceiving subject than are natural events. But how are we to
reconstruct the original historical context of a subject from the clues
We need to introduce at this point what I have
already called the diachronic approach to exegetical findings. After
about two hundred years now of exegetical work on the texts, one can no
longer give all their results equal weight. Now one has to look at them
within the context of their particular history. It then becomes clear
that such a history is not simply one of progress from imprecise to
precise and objective conclusions. It appears much more as a history of
subjectively reconstructed interrelationships whose approaches
correspond exactly to the developments of spiritual history. In turn,
these developments are reflected in particular interpretations of
texts. In the diachronic reading of an exegesis, its philosophic
presuppositions become quite apparent. Now, at a certain distance, the
observer determines to his surprise that these interpretations, which
were supposed to be strictly and purely "historical," reflect their own
overriding spirit, rather than the spirit of times long ago. This
insight should not lead us to skepticism about the method, but rather
to an honest recognition of what its limits are, and perhaps how it
might be purified.
A Self-Criticism of the Historical-Critical
Method on the Model of How the Method was Taught by Martin Dibelius and
In order not to let the general rules of the
method and their presuppositions remain altogether abstract, I would
like to try to illustrate what I have been saying thus far with an
example. I am going to follow here the doctoral dissertation written by
Reiner Blank at the University of Basel, entitled "Analysis and
Criticism of the Form-Critical Works of Martin Dibelius and Rudolph
Bultmann."  This book seems to me to be a fine example of a
self-critique of the historical-critical method. This kind of
self-critical exegesis stops building "conclusions" on top of
conclusions, and from constructing and opposing hypotheses. It looks
for a way to identify its own foundations and to purify itself by
reflections on those foundations. This does not mean that it is pulling
itself up by its own bootstraps. On the contrary, by a process of
self-limitation, it marks out for itself its own proper space. It goes
without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann
have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in
their details. But it is likewise true that their basic methodological
approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures
of modern exegesis. Their essential elements underlie more than their
own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have
widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.
For Dibelius, as
with Bultmann, it was a matter of overcoming the arbitrary manner in
which the preceding phase of Christian exegesis, the so-called "Liberal
Theology," had been conducted. This was imbued with judgments about
what was "historical" or "unhistorical." Both these scholars then
sought to establish strict literary criteria which would reliably
clarify the process by which the texts themselves were developed, and
would thus provide a true picture of the tradition. With this outlook,
both were in search of the pure form and of the rules which governed
the development from the initial forms to the text as we have it before
us today. As is well known, Dibelius proceeded from the view that the
secret of history discloses itself as one sheds light on its
development.  But how does one arrive at this first premise and to
the ground rules for further development? Even with all their
particular differences, one can discover here a series of fundamental
presuppositions common to both Dibelius and Bultmann and which both
considered trustworthy beyond question. Both proceed from the priority
of what is preached over the event in itself: in the beginning was the
Word. Everything in the Bible develops from the proclamation. This
thesis is so promoted by Bultmann that for him only the word can be
original: the word generates the scene.  All events, therefore, are
already secondary, mythological developments.
And so a further
axiom is formulated which has remained fundamental for modern exegesis
since the time of Dibelius and Bultmann: the notion of discontinuity.
Not only is there no continuity between the pre-Easter Jesus and the
formative period of the Church; discontinuity applies to all phases of
the tradition. This is so much the case that Reiner Blank could state,
"Bultmann wanted incoherence at any price." 
To these two
theories, the pure originality of the simple word and the discontinuity
between the particular phases of development, there is joined the
further notion that what is simple is original, that what is more
complex must be a later development. This idea affords an easily
applied parameter to determine the stages of development: the more
theologically considered and sophisticated a given text is, the more
recent it is, and the simpler something is, the easier it is to reckon
it original.  The criterion according to which something is
considered more or less developed, however, is not at all so evident as
it first seems. In fact, the judgment essentially depends upon the
theological values of the individual exegete. There remains
considerable room for arbitrary choice.
First and foremost one
must challenge that basic notion dependent upon a simplistic transferal
of science's evolutionary model to spiritual history. Spiritual
processes do not follow the rule of zoological genealogies. In fact, it
is frequently the opposite: after a great breakthrough, generations of
descendants may come who reduce what was once a courageous new
beginning to an academic commonplace. They bury it and disguise it by
all kinds of variations of the original theory until it finally comes
to have a completely different application
One can easily see
how questionable the criteria have been by using a few examples. Who
would hold that Clement of Rome is more developed or complex than Paul?
Is James any more advanced than the Epistle to the Romans? Is the
Didache more encompassing than the Pastoral Epistles? Take a look at
later times: whole generations of Thomistic scholars have not been able
to take in the greatness of his thought. Lutheran orthodoxy is far more
medieval than was Luther himself. Even between great figures there is
nothing to support this kind of developmental theory.
the Great, for example, wrote long after Augustine, and knew of him,
but for Gregory, the bold Augustinian vision is translated into the
simplicity of religious understanding. Another example: what standard
could one use to determine whether Pascal should be classified as
before or after Descartes? Which of their philosophies should be
mentioned to illustrate the whole of human history. All judgments based
on the theory of discontinuity in the tradition and on the assertion of
an evolutionary priority of the "simple" over the "complex" can thus be
immediately called into question as lacking foundation.
we must explain in an even more concrete way what criteria have been
used to determine what is "simple." In this regard there are standards
as to form and content. In terms of form, the search was for the
original forms. Dibelius found them in the so-called "paradigm," or
example narrative in oral tradition, which can be reconstructed behind
the proclamation. Later forms, on the other hand, would be the
"anecdote," the "legend," the collections of narrative materials, and
the "myth." .
Bultmann saw the pure form in the "apothegm,"
"the original specific fragment which would sum things up concisely;
interest would be concentrated on the word [spoken by] Jesus at the end
of a scene; the details of the situation would lie far from this kind
of form; Jesus would never come across as the initiator . . .
everything not corresponding to this form Bultmann attributed to
development."  The arbitary nature of these assessments which would
characterize theories of development and judgments of authenticity from
now on is only obvious. To be honest, though, one must also say that
these theories are not so arbitrary as they may first appear. The
designation of the "pure form" is based on a loaded idea of what is
original, which we must now put to the test.
One element of it
is what we have just encountered: the thesis of the priority of the
word over the event. But this thesis conceals two further pairs of
opposites: the pitting of word against cult, and eschatology against
apocalyptic. In close harmony with these is the antithesis between
Judaic and Hellenistic. Hellenistic was, for example, in Bultmann, the
notion of the cosmos, the mystical worship of the gods, and cultic
piety. The consequence is simple: what is a Hellenistic cannot be
Palestinian, and therefore it cannot be original. Whatever has to do
with cult, cosmos, or mystery must be rejected as a later development.
The rejection of "apocalyptic," the alleged opposite of eschatology,
leads to yet another element: the supposed antagonism between the
prophetic and the "legal", and thus between the prophetic and the
cosmic and cultic. It follows, then, that ethics is seen as
incompatible with the eschatological and the prophetic. In the
beginning there was no ethics, but simply an ethos.  What is surely
at work is the by-product of Luther's fundamental distinction: the
dialectic between the law and the gospel. According to this dialectic,
ethics and cult are to be relegated to the realm of the law, and put in
dialectical contrast with Jesus, who, as bearer of the Good News,
brings the long line of promise to completion and thus overcomes the
law. If we are ever to understand modern exegesis and critique it
correctly, we simply must return and reflect anew on Luther's view of
the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. In place of the
analogy model which was then current, he substituted a dialectical
However, for Luther all of this remained in a very
delicate balance, whereas for Dibelius and Bultmann the whole
degenerates into a developmental scheme of well-nigh intolerable
simplicity even if this has contributed to its attractiveness.
these presuppositions, the picture of Jesus is determined in advance.
Thus Jesus has to be conceived in strongly "Judaic" terms. Anything
"Hellenistic" has to be removed from him. All apocalyptic, sacramental,
mystical elements have to be pruned away. What remains is a strictly
"eschatological" prophet, who really proclaims nothing of substance. He
only cries out "eschatologically" in expectation of the "wholly other,"
of that transcendence which he powerfully presents before men in the
form of the imminent end of the world.
From this view emerged
two challenges for exegesis: it had to explain how one got from the
unmessianic, unapocalyptic, prophetic Jesus to the apocalyptic
community which worshiped him as Messiah; to a community in which were
united Jewish eschatology, stoic philosophy, and mystery religion in a
wondrous syncretism. This is exactly how Bultmann described early
The second challenge consists in how to
connect the original message of Jesus to Christian life today, thus
making it possible to understand his call to us.
the developmental model, the first problem is relatively easy to solve
in principle, even though an immense amount of scholarship had to be
dedicated to working out the details. The agent responsible for the
contents of the New Testament was not to be found in persons, but in
the collective, in the "community." Romantic notions of the "people"
and of its importance in the shaping of traditions play a key role
here.  Add to this the thesis of Hellenization and the appeal to
the history-of-religions school. The works of Gunkel and Bousset
exerted decisive influence in this area.  The second problem was
more difficult. Bultmann's approach was his theory of
demythologization, but this did not achieve quite the same success as
his theories on form and development. If one were allowed to
characterize somewhat roughly Bultmann's solution for a contemporary
appropriation of Jesus' message, one might say that the scholar from
Marburg had set up a correspondence between the
nonapocalyptic-prophetic and the fundamental thought of the early
Heidegger. Being a Christian, in the sense Jesus meant it, is
essentially collapsed into that mode of existing in openness and
alertness which Heidegger described. The question has to occur whether
one cannot come by some simpler way to such general and sweeping formal
Still, what is of interest to us here is not
Bultmann the systematician, whose activities came to an abrupt halt in
any case with the rise of Marxism. Instead, we should examine Bultmann
the exegete who is responsible for an ever more solid consensus
regarding the methodology of scientific exegesis.
The Philosophic Source of the Method
this point the question arises, how could Dibelius's and Bultmann's
essential categories for judgment — that is, the pure form, the
opposition between apocalyptic and eschatology and so on — present such
evidence to them, that they believed they had at their disposal the
perfect instrument for gaining a knowledge of history? Why, even today
in large part, is this system of thought taken without question and
applied? Since then, most of it has simply become an academic
commonplace, which precedes individual analysis and appears to be
legitimized almost automatically by application. But what about the
founders of the method? Certainly, Dibelius and Bultmann already stood
in a tradition. Mention has already been made of their dependence on
Gunkel and Bousset. But what was their dominant idea? With this
question, the self-critique of the historical method passes over to a
self-criticism of historical reason, without which our analysis would
get stuck in superficialities.
In the first place, one can note
that in the history-of-religions school, the model of evolution was
applied to the analysis of biblical texts. This was an effort to bring
the methods and models of the natural sciences to bear on the study of
history. Bultmann laid hold of this notion in a more general way and
thus attributed to the so-called scientific worldview a kind of
dogmatic character. Thus, for example, for him the nonhistoricity of
the miracle stories was no question whatever anymore. The only thing
one needed to do yet was to explain how these miracle stories came
about. On one hand the introduction of the scientific worldview was
indeterminate and not well thought out. On the other hand, it offered
an absolute rule for distinguishing between what could have been and
what had to be explained only by development. To this latter category
belonged everything which is not met with in common daily experience.
 There could only have been what now is. For everything else,
therefore, historical processes are invented, whose reconstruction
became the particular challenge of exegesis.
But I think we must
go yet a step further in order to appeciate the fundamental decision of
the system which generated these particular categories for judgment.
The real philosophic presupposition of the whole system seems to me to
lie in the philosophic turning point proposed by Immanuel Kant.
According to him, the voice of being-in-itself cannot be heard by human
beings. Man can hear it only indirectly in the postulates of practical
reason which have remained as it were the small opening through which
he can make contact with the real, that is, his eternal destiny. For
the rest, as far as the content of his intellectual life is concerned,
he must limit himself to the realm of the categories. Thence comes the
restriction to the positive, to the empirical, to the "exact" science,
which by definition excludes the appearance of what is "wholly other,"
or the one who is wholly other, or a new initiative from another plane.
theological terms, this means that revelation must recede into the pure
formality of the eschatological stance, which corresponds to the
Kantian split.  As far as everything else is concerned, it all
needs to be "explained." What might otherwise seem like a direct
proclamation of the divine, can only be myth, whose laws of develoment
can he discovered. It is with this basic conviction that Bultmann, with
the majority of modern exegetes, read the Bible. He is certain that it
cannot be the way it is depicted in the Bible, and he looks for methods
to prove the way it really had to be. To that extent there lies in
modern exegesis a reduction of history into philosophy, a revision of
history by means of philosophy.
The real question before us then
is, can one read the Bible any other way? Or perhaps better, must one
agree with the philosophy which requires this kind of reading? At its
core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among
historians: it is rather a philosophical debate. Only in this way can
it be carried on correctly. Otherwise it is like a battle in a mist.
The exegetical problem is identical in the main with the struggle for
the foundations of our time. Such a struggle cannot be conducted
casually, nor can it be won with a few suggestions. It will demand, as
I have already intimated, the attentive and critical commitment of an
entire generation. It cannot simply retreat back to the Middle Ages or
to the Fathers and place them in blind opposition to the spirit of the
present age. But neither can it renounce the insights of the great
believers of the past and pretend that the history of thought seriously
began only with Kant.
In my opinion the more recent debate about
biblical hermeneutics suffers from just such a narrowing of our
horizon. One can hardly dismiss the exegesis of the Fathers by calling
it mere "allegory" or set aside the philosophy of the Middle Ages by
branding it as "precritical."
The Basic Elements of a New Synthesis
these remarks on the challenge of a self-critique of the historical
method, we now find ourselves confronted with the positive side of the
problem, how to join its tools with a better philosophy which would
entail fewer drawbacks foreign to the text which would be less
arbitrary, and which would offer greater possibilities for a true
listening to the text itself. The positive task is without a doubt even
more difficult than the critical one. I can only try to conclude these
remarks by trying to carve out a few narrow footpaths in the thicket,
which may perhaps point out where the main road lies and how it is to
In the midst of the theological, methodological debate
of his day, Gregory of Nyssa called upon the rationalist Eunomius not
to confuse theology with the science of nature. (Theologein is not
physiologein.)  "The mystery of theology is one thing," he said,
"the scientific investigation of nature is quite another." One cannot
then "encompass the unembraceable nature of God in the palm of a
child's hand." Gregory was here alluding to one of the famous sayings
of Zeno: "The open hand is perception, the clapping hand is the
agreement of the intellect, the hand fully closed upon something is the
recording of judgment, the one hand clasped by the other is systematic
Modern exegesis, as we have seen, completely
relegated God to the incomprehensible, the otherworldly and the
inexpressible in order to be able to treat the biblical text itself as
an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods.
to the text itself, physiologein is practiced. As a "critical science,"
it claims an exactness and certitude similar to natural science. This
is a false claim because it is based upon a misunderstanding of the
depth and dynamism of the word. Only when one takes from the word its
own proper character as word and then stretches it onto the screen of
some basic hypothesis can one subject it to such exact rules. Romano
Guardini commented in this regard on the false certainty of modern
exegesis, which he said "has produced very significant individual
results, but has lost sight of its own particular object and generally
has ceased being theology."  The sublime thought of Gregory of
Nyssa remains a true guidepost today: "these gliding and glittering
lights of God's word which sparkle over the eyes of the soul . . . but
now let what we hear from Elijah rise up to our soul and would that our
thoughts, too, might be snatched up into the fiery chariot . . . so we
would not have to abandon hope of drawing close to these stars, by
which I mean the thoughts of God . . . " 
Thus the word
should not be submitted to just any kind of enthusiasm. Rather,
preparation is required to open us up to the inner dynamism of the
word. This is possible only when there is a certain "sym-pathia" or
understanding, a readiness to learn something new, to allow oneself to
be taken along a new road. It is not the closed hand which is required,
but the opened eye . . .
Thus the exegete should not approach
the text with a ready-made philosophy, nor in accordance with the
dictates of a so-called modern or "scientific" worldview, which
determines in advance what may or may not be. He may not exclude a
priori that (almighty) God could speak in human words in the world, He
may not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human
history, however improbable such a thing might at first appear.
must be ready to learn from the extraordinary. He must be ready to
accept that the truly original may occur in history, something which
cannot be derived from precedents, but which opens up out of itself.
 He may not deny to humanity the ability to be responsive beyond
the categories of pure reason, and to reach beyond ourselves towards
the open and endless truth of being.
We must likewise reexamine
the relationship between event and word. For Dibelius, Bultmann, and
the mainstream of modern exegesis, the event is the irrational element.
It lies in the realm of mere facticity, which is a mixture of accident
and necessity. The fact as such, therefore, cannot be a bearer of
meaning. Meaning lies only in the word, and where events might seem to
bear meaning, they are to be considered as illustrations of the word to
which they have to be referred. Judgments which derive from such a
point of view are certainly persuasive for people of today, since they
fit nicely into their own patterns of expectations. There is, however,
no evidence in reality to support them. Such evidence is admissible
only under the presupposition that the principle of scientific method,
namely that every effort which occurs can be explained in terms of
purely immanent relationships within the operation itself, is not only
valid methodologically but is true in and of itself. Thus, in reality
there would be only "accident and necessity," nothing else, and one may
only look upon these elements as brute facts.
But, what is
useful as a methodological principle for the natural sciences is a
foregone banality as a philosophical principle; and as a theological
principle it is a contradiction. (How can any or all of God's activity
be considered either as accidental or necessary?) It is here, for the
sake of scientific curiosity, too, that we must experiment with the
precise contrary of this principle, namely, that things can indeed be
To put it another way: the event itself can be a
"word," in accord with the biblical word terminology itself.  From
this flow two important rules for interpretation.
a) First, both
word and event have to be considered equally original, if one wishes to
remain true to the biblical perspective. The dualism which banishes the
event into wordlessness, that is meaninglessness, would rob the word of
its power to convey meaning as well, for it would then stand in a world
It also leads to a docetic Christology in which
the reality, that is the concrete fleshly existence of Christ and
especially of man, is removed from the realm of meaning. Thus the
essence of the biblical witness fails of its purpose.
Secondly, such a dualism splits the biblical word off from creation and
would substitute the principle of discontinuity for the organic
continuity of meaning which exists between the Old and New Testaments.
When the continuity between word and event is allowed to disappear,
there can no longer be any unity within the Scripture itself. A New
Testament cut off from the Old is automatically abolished since it
exists, as its very title suggests, because of the unity of both.
Therefore the principle of discontinuity must be counterbalanced by the
interior claim of the biblical text itself, according to the principle
of the analogia scripturae: the mechanical principle must be balanced
by the teleological principle. 
Certainly texts must first
of all be traced back to their historical origins and interpreted in
their proper historical context. But then, in a second exegetical
operation, one must look at them also in light of the total movement of
history and in light of history's central event, Jesus Christ. Only the
combination of both these methods will yield understanding of the
Bible. If the first exegetical operation by the Fathers and in the
Middle Ages is found to be lacking, so too is the second, since it
easily falls into arbitrariness. Thus, the first was fruitless, but the
rejection of any coherence of meaning leads to an opinionated
To recognize the inner self-transcendence of the
historical word, and thus the inner correctness of subsequent
rereadings in which event and meaning are gradually interwoven, is the
task of interpretation properly so-called, for which appropriate
methods can and must be found. In this connection, the exegetical maxim
of Thomas Aquinas is quite to the point: "The duty of every good
interpreter is to contemplate not the words, but the sense of the
In the last hundred years, exegesis has had many
great achievements, but it has brought forth great errors as well.
These latter, moreover, have in some measure grown to the stature of
academic dogmas. To criticize them at all would be taken by many as
tantamount to sacrilege, especially if it were to be done by a
non-exegete. Nevertheless, so prominent an exegete as Heinrich Schlier
previously warned his colleagues: "Do not squander your time on
trivialities."  Johann Gnilka gave concrete expression to this
warning when he reacted against an exaggerated emphasis by the
history-of-traditions school. 
Along the same lines, I would like to express the following hopes:
The time seems to have arrived for a new and thorough reflection on
exegetical method. Scientific exegesis must recognize the philosophic
element present in a great number of its ground rules, and it must then
reconsider the results which are based on these rules.
Exegesis can no longer be studied in a unilinear, synchronic fashion,
as is the case with scientific findings which do not depend upon their
history, but only upon the precision of their data. Exegesis must
recognize itself as an historical discipline. Its history belongs to
itself. In a critical arrangement of its respective positions within
the totality of its own history, it will be able, on one hand, to
recognize the relativity of its own judgments (where, for example,
errors may have crept in). On the other hand, it will be in a better
position to achieve an insight into our real, if always imperfect,
comprehension of the biblical word.
c) Philological and
scientific literary methods are and will remain critically important
for a proper exegesis. But for their actual application to the work of
criticism — just as for an examination of their claims — an
understanding of the philosophic implications of the interpretative
process is required. The self-critical study of its own history must
also imply an examination of the essential philosophic alternatives for
human thought. Thus, it is not sufficient to scan simply the last one
hundred and fifty years. The great outlines of patristic and medieval
thought must also be brought into the discussion. It is equally
indispensable to reflect on the fundamental judgments made by the
Reformers and the critical importance they have had in the history of
d) What we need now are not new hypotheses on the Sitz
im Leben, on possible sources or on the subsequent process of handing
down the material. What we do need is a critical look at the exegetical
landscape we now have, so that we may return to the text and
distinguish between those hypotheses which are helpful and those which
are not. Only under these conditions can a new and fruitful
collaboration between exegesis and systematic theology begin. And only
in this way will exegesis be of real help in understanding the Bible.
Finally, the exegete must realize that he, does not stand in some
neutral area, above or outside history and the Church. Such a presumed
immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends.
The first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible
as a book. In so doing, it has already chosen a place for itself which
does not simply follow from the study of literature. It has identified
this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and
this history as the proper space for coming to understanding. If it
wishes to be theology, it must take a further step. It must recognize
that the faith of the Church is that form of "sympathia" without which
the Bible remains a closed book. It must come to acknowledge this faith
as a hermeneutic, the space for understanding, which does not do
dogmatic violence to the Bible, but precisely allows the solitary
possibility for the Bible to be itself.
Lecture delivered on 27th January 1988 at Saint Peter's Church in New York, New York.
With refreshing directness and yet with impressive literary ability, C.
S. Lewis describes this situation in his Fern-seed and Elephants and
Other Essays on Christianity, ed. W. Hooper , (Fontana/Collins, 1975).
German title: Was der Laie blökt, Christliche Diagnosen (Einsiedeln,
1977), esp. pp. 11-35. For reflections on the problem which are based
upon a broad knowledge of the subject, see also E. Kästner, Die
Stundentrommel vom heiligen Berg Athos (Inselverlag, 1956). Significant
also for an analysis of the situation is J. Guitton, Silence sur
1'essentiel (Desclée, 1986), pp. 47-58. W. Kümmel's Das Neue Testament,
Geschichte der Erforschung seiner Probleme (Freiburg, 1958) also is
suitable for a review of the history of historical-critical exegesis.
On the evangelical side, P. Tillich's Systematische Theologie
(Stuttgart, 1956; reprint, 1966) can serve as an example. For it — this
is not an approximation — the author's index for all three volumes
claims but a scant two pages. On the Catholic side, Rahner in his later
years came to consider theology, as in the case of Grundkurs des
Glaubens (Freiburg, 1976), as quite independent from exegesis (cf., for
example, p. 25).
3. Cf. J Guitton, Silence sur l'essentiel, p.
56 ff.; R. Guardini, Das Christusbild der paulinischen und
johanneischen Schriften (Wurzburg, 1961), p. 15.
4. Kästner (Die
Stundentrommel, p. 121) puts it this way; he thereby made use of the
thought of L. Kolakowski, Die Gegenwärtigkeit des Mythos (Munich,
1973), p. 95f.
5. This is evidenced especially by a look at the
works of P. Ricoeur, e.g., Hermeneutik und Strukturalismus 1 (1973);
Hermeneutik und Psychoanalyse (1974). P. Stuhlmacher offers a useful
perspective and orientation for the present state of the question with
his Vom Verstehen des Neuen Testaments. Eine Hermenuetik (Göttingen,
1986). Important attempts can moreover be found in P. Toinet, Pour une
théologie de 1'exégèse (preface, I. de la Potterie. Paris, 1983); R.
Laurentin, Comment réconcilier 1'exégèse et la foi (Paris, 1984); P.
Grech, Ermeneutica e Teologia biblica (Rome, 1986); P. Grelot,
Evangiles et histoire (Desclée, 1985). Tübingen's Die Theologische
Quartalschrift dedicated an entire issue in 1970 (pp. 1-71) to the
discussion of this question in the form of a debate over the
contribution of J. Blank, Exegese als theologische Basiswissenschaft
(pp. 2-23). Unfortunately, this contribution is not productive, for it
appears to trace the problems arising from exegesis ultimately back to
a dogmatism which has not yet arrived at the heights of historical
6. Characteristic of this are the new forms of
materialist and feminist interpretation of the Scriptures. Cf., for
example, K. Füssel, "Materialistische Lektüre der Bibel," in
Theologische Berichte, vol. 13, Methoden der Evangelien-Exegese
(Einsiedeln, 1985), pp. 123-63.
7. Cf. W. Heisenberg, Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1955), esp. pp. 15-23.
I am referring here to P. Stuhlmacher (Vom Verstehen). He gives his own
response to the problems in a "Hermeneutik des Einverständnisses mit
den biblischen Texten," pp. 222-56.
9. Bo Reicke, ed., Theologische Dissertationen, vol. 16 (Basel, 1981).
Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis," p. 72. In opposition to him one finds E.
Kästner (Die Stundentrommel, p. 120), who speaks about "Aberglauben . .
. es sei alles und jedes aus seinen Entstehungen zu verstehen . . ."
11. Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis, " p. 97.
12. Ibid., p. 154.
Cf. ibid., pp. 89-183. Characteristic of the practical and general
acceptance of this standard — to cite only one example — is the
uncritical way in which L. Oberlinner takes it for granted that the
"reflection [is] doubtlessly earlier [in contradistinction to Paul],
exemplified in the ecclesiology and eschatology" which he sees present
in the synoptic gospels and which he proposes as a criterion for
dating. (Review of J. Carmignac, "La naissance des Evangiles
Synoptiques" [Paris, 1984], in Theologische Revue 83 :194.) What
is the criterion according to which one reflection is to be designated
as more and another as less developed? Presumably it still depends upon
the perspective of the observer. And even if the standard proves
correct, who can show that there follows from it an "earlier"
corresponding to a "later"?
14. R. Blank, "Analysis, " pp. 11-46.
15. Ibid., p. 98.
M. Dibelius, "Die Unbedingtheit des Evangeliums und die Bedingtheit der
Ethik" in Christliche Welt 40 (1926): cols. 1103-1120, esp. 1107 and
1109; by the same author, Geschichtliche und übergeschichtliche
Religion im Christentum (Göttingen, 1925); cf., in addition, R. Blank,
"Analysis," pp. 66-71.
17. Cf. R. Bultmann, Urchristentum (Zürich, 1954), esp. p. 101ff.; cf. R. Blank, "Analysis," p. 172ff.
18. Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis," pp. 111, 175.
Cf. W. Klatt, Hermann Gunkel, Zu seiner Theologie der
Religionsgeschichte und zur Entstehung der formgeschichtlichen Methode
20. Cf. the questions raised in the debate over
demythologization. The most significant contributions to this
discussion are assembled in the five volumes edited by H. W. Bartsch,
Kerygma und Mythos (Hamburg, 1948-1955).
21. Brilliant analyses
in this regard may be found in Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern
Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, New York,
1969). Just one citation here: "The present, however, remains strangely
immune from relativization. In other words, the New Testament writers
are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness rooted in their time,
but the contemporary analyst takes the consciousness of his time as an
unmixed intellectual blessing. The electricity and radio users are
placed intellectually above the Apostle Paul" (p. 41). For the question
concerning the worldview, there are important considerations in H.
Gese, Zur biblischen Theologie (Munich, 1977), pp. 202-22.
Cf. R. Blank, "Analysis, " p. 137: "Die Ungeschichtlichkeit der
Wundergeschichten war für ihn (= Bultmann) keine Frage." On the
Kantian, philosophical background and for a critique of it, cf. J.
Zoharer, Der Glaube an die Freiheit und der historische Jesus, Eine
Untersuchung der Philosophie Karl Jaspers' unter christologischem
Aspekt (Frankfurt, 1986).
23. Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium
10, ed. W. Jaeger, pp. 227, 26 (Patrologia Graeca 45, 828 C); cf. also
hom. 11, in cant, Patrologia Graeca 44, 1013. C. E. Kästner expresses
it in much the same way in Die Stundentrömmel, p. 117 (see note 1):
"jeder fühlt es: Wissenschaft and Forschungsergebnis sinkt dahin im
Vergleiche zu dem, was in Unwissen jene Holzbildhauer ersannen. Der
Gewinn ist erschlichen und dürftig. Das Organ, mut dem jene suchten,
ist das edlere von beiden gewesen: ein Auge, während historisches
Forschen nur ein Greiforgan ist. Begreifen will es, das sagt es ja
24. So states H. U. von Balthasar in his introduction
to Gregor v. Nyssa. Der versiegelte Quell. Auslegung des Hohen Liedes
(Einsiedeln, 1984), p. 17.
25. R. Guardini, Das Christusbild der
paulinischen und johanneischen Schriften (Würzburg, 1961), p. 14. The
reflections on methodology which Guardini develops in this work (pp.
7-15) should be counted, in my opinion among the most significant thus
far advanced regarding the problem of method in the interpretation of
Scripture. Guardini had already dealt explicitly with this problem in
the early period of his career with his article "Heilige Schrift und
Glaubenswissenschaft," in Die Schildgenossen 8 (1928), pp. 24-57. M.
Theobald takes a critical position with regard to Guardini's exegetical
theory and practice in "die Autonomie der historischen Kritik —
Ausdruck des Unglaubens oder theologische Notwendigkeit? Zur
Schriftauslegung R. Guardinis," in Auslegungen des Glaubens. Zur
Hermeneutik christlicher Existenz, ed. L. Honnefelder and M.
LutzBachmann (Berlin: Hildesheim, 1987), pp. 21-45.
of Nyssa, hom. 10 in cant. Patrologia Graeca 44, 980 B-C, in the
edition of W. Jaeger (ed. H. Langerbeck [Leiden, 1960]), VI, 295,
5-296, 3. German translation by H. U. von Balthasar (see note 24), p.
27. Cf. Guardini, Das Christusbild, p. 11.
also J. Bergmann, H. Lutzmann, W. H. Schmidt, däbär, in Theol.
Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament 2, ed. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren
(1977), pp. 89-133; O. Proksch, legö, in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum
Neuen Testament 4, esp. pp. 91-97. On the unity of word and event in
Thomas, cf. M. Arias-Reyero, Thomas von Aquin als Exeget (Einsiedeln,
1971), pp. 102, 246f, et passim.
29. For a correct understanding
of teleology, see R. Spaemann and R. Löw, Die Frage Wazu? Geschichte
und Wiederentdeckung des Teleologischen Denkens (Munich and Zurich,
30. "Officium est enim boni interpretis non considerare
verba sed sensum." In Matthaeum 27, no. 2321, ed. R. Cai (Turin, Rome,
1951), p. 358; cf. Arias, Thomas von Aquin, p. 161.
Schlier, "Was heisst? Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift?" in Besinnung auf
das Neue Testament. Exegetische Aufsätze und Vortaräge 2 (Freiburg,
1964), pp. 35-62, here 62; cf. J. Gnilka, "Die biblische Exegese im
Lichte des Dekretes über die göttliche Offenbarung," Münchnere
Theologische Zeitschrift 36 (1985): p. 14.
32. Gnilka, "Die biblische Exegese," p. 14.