By Fr. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J. at Homiletic & Pastoral Review:
The twentieth century was a tumultuous time in the Catholic Church for all concerned with the interpretation of the Bible. For the past few decades, this topic has been a principal concern of one prominent theologian. His interest in the topic arose at the time of the Second Vatican Council, when he was a promising young theologian from Germany who served at the Council as the theological adviser to Joseph Cardinal Frings, the archbishop of Cologne—Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. This interest has continued unabated into his reign as Pope Benedict XVI.
Ratzinger’s career as a theologian had begun well before the Council. He taught successively at four universities in Germany: Bonn (1959–63), Münster (1963–66), Tübingen (1966–69) and Regensburg (1969–77). In March of 1977 he was named archbishop of Munich-Freising, the archdiocese for which he had been ordained. In 1981, after only four years as archbishop of Munich, Pope John Paul II called Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome, where he served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades. On April 19, 2005, he was elected pope on the fourth ballot, and assumed the name Benedict XVI. In the course of more than forty years, Pope Benedict has written often and at length about the theology of the Bible.
What is meant by the theology of the Bible? If theology is faith seeking understanding, then the theology of the Bible must be the act of a Christian believer seeking to understand the revealed word of God recorded in the Bible. “Biblical theology refers to a unified understanding of the saving truths of the inspired Scripture as they have been handed down in the tradition of the Church. This understanding is based on the unity of the Old and New Testaments, on Christ as the interpretive key of the Scriptures, and on the Church’s divine liturgy as the fulfillment and actualization of Scripture’s saving truths.”1
The vicissitudes of Catholic biblical scholarship
The history of biblical scholarship in the Catholic Church during the past century and a half has been told and retold, even taking on the qualities of a saga or an epic. The era began in an embattled atmosphere in the Church, in which the great enemy was the “modern mind.” It began, Ratzinger writes, with Pius IX’s promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, and extended to Humani Generis, issued in 1950 by Pius XII.2 Within this century, the embattled atmosphere reached its zenith under Pius X. Around the year 1900, a movement designated “Modernism” arose in the Catholic Church. Modernism displayed three principal tendencies: (1) religion was a product of the subconscious; (2) theology was a matter of subjective feeling; and (3) revelation was reduced to nothing more than a religious need. Tradition and dogma were dismissed as mere objectifications of those feelings and needs. Furthermore, since neither tradition nor dogma contained objective or unchanging truth, they should then be adapted to contemporary needs. In this way Modernists used subjective biblical criticism or “historicism” to locate truths (biblical, philosophical or creedal) so firmly in the irretrievable past that any claim to an unassailable or universal truth became impossible.
Modernism was condemned in 1907, under Pope Pius X. In July of that year, the Holy Office published the decree Lamentabili sane, and two months later, Pius X promulgated the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis. Lamentabili, which condemned sixty-five propositions attributed to Modernists, rejected, in proposition after proposition, any thesis that questioned the historicity of the Bible, especially of the gospels, and any thesis that appeared to sever the continuity between the Scriptures and the Church’s dogmatic teaching. The encyclical Pascendi repeated these themes and attacked any theory that divided the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith—that is, as the pope phased it, the humanly knowable objective facts about Jesus that can be extracted from the gospels from the idealized Christ who exists only in the pious meditations of the believer and in the Church’s dogmas.3 After Lamentabili and Pascendi, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued response after response that rejected the results of historical criticism, and Catholic scholarship sank into biblical winter...