Benedict XVI & the reform of biblical exegesis

The Historical-Critical method of biblical exegesis has dominated scripture study for more than a hundred years. Despite the uneasiness of many theologians, and especially the faithful, about the way this method has often been conducted, few have dared to challenge its presuppositions, implications and its exclusivity.

One figure who has consistently called for a re-evaluation, purification and augmentation of the prevalent method of biblical exegesis is Joseph Ratzinger. Now as Pope Benedict XVI his contribution in this crucial area of theology will be all the more influential.

Especially in his two volume work book Jesus of Nazareth, and his post-synodal apostolic letter Verbum Domini, Joseph Ratzinger calls us to move beyond mere historical-criticism to a more profoundly theological reading of Scripture.{{1}} He acknowledges that a truly historical approach is necessary, but while it only deals with the isolated past as past it “does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.”{{2}} In expressing this point Ratzinger subtly shifts the debate away from an assessment of what the historical-critical method has achieved or not to a new openness for something which goes much further than historical-criticism itself.

Critical historical exegesis during the past hundred years has undoubtedly aided unprecedented advancements in our biblical knowledge: in the better understanding of literary genres, source history and textual composition; in etymology and archaeology; in the penetration of ancient languages and cultural settings. Nevertheless, at no other time has there been such a crisis in relating our faith to the findings of modern research.

This problem is felt most acutely in relation to the person of Jesus Christ himself. Many scholars have separated the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith” and in doing so have severed theology and doctrine from reason and reality. The potential fall-out from this trend is worrying: “Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.”{{3}}

Verbum Domini warns explicitly of a “secular hermenuetic” which views the bible as a mere text of the past. It states that:

… such a position can only prove harmful to the life of the Church, casting doubt over fundamental mysteries of Christianity and their historicity as, for example, the institution of the Eucharist and the resurrection of Christ. A philosophical hermeneutic is thus imposed, one which denies the possibility that the Divine can enter and be present within history.{{4}}

Against the background of scepticism it is not surprising that the perennial Christian method of discovering certain theological truth and spiritual meaning in the Scriptures was virtually eclipsed in the second half of the 20th century. Ratzinger comments that the great synthesis found in the traditional Christian interpretation, “would become problematic when historical consciousness developed rules of interpretation that made Patristic exegesis appear non-historical and so objectively indefensible.”{{5}}

Reflecting upon this peculiar impasse, Joseph Ratzinger has noted that the crisis in biblical understanding feeds off and fuels a broader predicament in theological hermeneutics. Almost twenty years ago Joseph Ratzinger observed:

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.{{6}}

The secularisation of exegesis stems from a more general anti-supernatural rationalism that has been present and growing since the “Enlightenment.” If one denies the reality of God and his active guidance of creation, then it follows that one will deny the concept of an inspired Scripture that gives us objective divine revelation and the key to understanding history. A theological and supernatural view of exegesis is then automatically dismissed, thought unworthy of serious scholarship, or easily reduced to a footnote in the history of ideas.

The deeper issue at stake, which Ratzinger has picked up on, is obviously not one of defending or attacking biblical historicity but rather a more fundamental one. What the rationalist, with his particular philosophy, could not accept was the claim inherent in traditional Christian exegesis that there is a privileged knowledge about the meaning of history that comes from the transcendent God himself. The properly theological and revelatory sense of Scripture, which was always an essential part of traditional exegesis, could never be considered as ‘religion within the confines of pure reason’ and was therefore unacceptable.

When historical criticism, whose “specific object is the human word as human,”{{7}} is used by a rationalist scholar as the exclusive approach to Scripture then faith is necessarily banished out of exegesis. Furthermore, when dogmatic belief in a unified corpus of Scripture is excluded any connection between the Old and New Testaments is rendered utterly tenuous. As Ratzinger has noted:

The triumph of historical-critical exegesis seemed to sound the death knell for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament initiated by the New Testament itself. It is not a question here of historical details, as we have seen, it is the very foundations of Christianity that are being questioned.{{8}}

Even the greatest aids in discovering the surface meaning of an isolated text of Scripture are of little use if the meaning and implications of that literal passage can be neither contextualised within the whole biblical corpus nor allowed to be mined for revealed theological truth. Historical-criticism always deals with Scripture as a series of fragmented works from different periods and by definition remains at the basic level of human hypothesis. If this becomes the sole exclusive endeavour of the biblical scholar then theology has been excluded categorically and has been replaced by an alternative philosophy and world view.

The Ratzinger Solution

Joseph Ratzinger has indicated two clear ways by which we can help foster a solution to the exegetical crisis.

1. A Purification of the Historical-Critical Method

The first is to purify the historical–critical method itself. The purification of the historical-critical method can take place by off-loading the philosophical baggage that has weighed it down in suspicion of faith. There is no reason why we cannot conduct perfectly rigorous and impartial historical research on the history of ancient peoples and texts while believing at the same time in God, providence and divine inspiration.

In Jesus of Nazareth Ratzinger cuts through so much of the paper-thin scepticism of the critics both with cogent arguments and, above all, with that devastatingly simple alternative open to every enquirer: “I trust the gospels.”{{9}} By this masterful stoke the philosophically loaded hermeneutic of suspicion is replaced by a hermeneutic of faith.

Joseph Ratzinger has often called theologians and exegetes to be wary of implicit philosophical presuppositions that carry an innate bias against faith and the supernatural dimension of revelation. He has stated very clearly that, “at its core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among historians: it is rather a philosophical debate.”{{10}} In practice he calls us to reverse the hermeneutic of suspicion from Holy Scripture back to the exegetes themselves. In his work Behold the Pierced One he states the thesis:

The historical-critical method and other modern scientific methods are important for an understanding of Holy Scripture and Tradition. Their value, however, depends on their hermeneutical (philosophical) context in which they are applied.

Reservations regarding minimalist pre-suppositions need not be seen as an attack on the historical-critical method itself. What is being called for here is that the critics practice a little more self-criticism and self-limitation with a greater hermeneutical honesty and philosophical awareness.{{11}}

A purified historical critical method can, according to Ratzinger, be open to and work with a truly theological understanding of Scripture. This openness is akin to the receptivity of reason before faith. From the merely human standpoint, “the individual writings (Schrifte) of the Bible point somehow to the living process that shapes the one Scripture (Schrift).”{{12}} We begin to see, even without theological faith, the marvellous inter-connectedness of these documents and the events described therein.{{13}} When faith begins to see that inter-connectedness as coming from Christ and as supernaturally founded then we enter into the realm of theology proper. “But this act of faith is based upon reason – historical reason – and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture.”{{14}}

Throughout the work, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict gives us a practical exegetical example of a purified historical approach to Scripture. He reads the sacred text with faith and reverence, with a motive of seeking the true “face of Christ”, in the context of the Church’s divinely guaranteed doctrine, while at the same time employing to the full modern historical tools for understanding the original context, languages and construction of the biblical text. Just as the scribe of the Kingdom, as put before us by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Ratzinger brings out of his treasures, “things both new and old” (Mt13:52). In a recent audience Pope Benedict said:

We must never forget that the Word of God transcends time. Human opinions come and go. What is very modern today will be very antiquated tomorrow. On the other hand, the Word of God is the Word of eternal life, it bears within it eternity and is valid for ever. By carrying the Word of God within us, we therefore carry within us eternity, eternal life.{{15}}

2. A Return to Faith-informed reading of Scripture

Pope Benedict in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini made clear that the true principles which are to govern exegesis, as set out by Dei Verbum, are still “to be appropriated.”{{16}} He speaks of “the recovery of an adequate scriptural hermeneutic”{{17}} which appreciates the Scriptures are principally God’s Word, read as one bible out of two Testaments, and only adequately heard with the ears of faith. Accepting the corpus of the bible as one work with each part relating to the whole is an act of faith. Furthermore, accepting the progression from Old to New Testament requires Christian faith.

The bible is to be interpreted in and through the Church, “The Bible is the Church’s book, and its essential place in the Church’s life gives rise to its genuine interpretation.”{{18}} In his work Jesus of Nazareth and in his unprecedented audience addresses on the Fathers of the Church Pope Benedict has been putting this ideal into practice for all to see.

Verbum Domini makes it clear that it is only in following this faith-filled reading of Scripture that the balance in exegesis will be found. Faith is an advantage to understanding not a hindrance. Faith gives the reader the context and shared perspective of the author, a sympathy which allows insight. It is the kind of advantage that one who plays Mozart’s works and knows them from regular experience has over the scholar who has studied them note for note but never heard them.

Uniquely within a faith filled reading of Sacred Scripture is what we call the spiritual sense. Almost all the Fathers of the Church, to a greater or lesser extent, employed in their writings a particular method of scriptural exegesis which they believed to have been established by the Lord Jesus himself and passed down through the Apostles.{{19}} This method uncovers a ‘mystical meaning’ of the Scriptures founded on God’s perfect plan for the history and salvation of the world. This ‘mystical meaning’ came to be called the spiritual sense of Scripture. It was practiced in homilies, commentaries, theological tomes and in the teaching of catechumens. This exegetical method was bequeathed to later centuries as the common inheritance of East and West and was at the heart of theology throughout the medieval period.

Against a background of new theological openness Joseph Ratzinger offers above all this particular way towards solving our exegetical crisis, namely, to revive a truly theological exegesis, particularly as exhibited by the Fathers of the Church. In his important preface to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, he praises “new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture.”{{20}}

One need only survey his many theological writings to see just how steeped he is in Patristic theology. He himself has described very explicitly his love of the Fathers of the Church and the theological influence they have had upon him. For a renewal of exegesis he speaks of the need “to introduce into the discussion the great proposals of patristic and medieval thought.”{{21}} It is to that which we now turn.

Rediscovering the Spiritual Sense of Scripture

At the heart of Pope Benedict’s ‘faith-filled reading’ of Scripture is the spiritual sense. Although this method of biblical exegesis has become part of the call of the Magisterium,{{22}} only few grasp what it really means. We need to set-out what it signifies and then demonstrate why it is an essential part of the theological and exegetical enterprise.

During a general audience in April 2007 Pope Benedict, when speaking of the theological contribution of the third century writer Origen, once again emphasised that while the literal sense is indispensable it opens itself to something more. He said:

But this sense transcends us, moving us towards God in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, shows us how to live. Mention of it is found, for example, in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen likens Scripture to [fresh] walnuts: “The doctrine of the Law and the Prophets at the school of Christ is like this”, the homilist says; “the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin; secondly, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; thirdly, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future.” (Hom. Num. 9, 7){{23}}

God himself, the Lord of history, can alone guarantee this unique form of signification. Through his special providence and inspiration God ensures that the two great Testaments have a particular relationship to Christ’s coming and saving action. In fact, God has ensured that the Scriptures are radically focused as one on Christ.

In Jesus of Nazareth we read that “all the currents of Scripture come together in him, that he is the focal point in terms of which the overall coherence of Scripture comes to light – everything is waiting for him, everything is moving towards him.”{{24}} Discovery of the spiritual sense of Scripture is theological exegesis par excellence. It opens up to us vast tomes of neglected Patristic and Medieval writings and gives a new appreciation of why we posses such a lavish gift as an inspired Scripture.

The Origin of the Spiritual sense of Scripture

The spiritual method of exegesis comes from the New Testament itself and is not an invention of later theology. Ratzinger writes, “The Fathers of the Church created nothing new when they gave a Christological interpretation to the Old Testament; they only systematised what they themselves had already discovered in the New Testament.” {{25}} The ultimate justification for the use and practice of the spiritual sense is that the New Testament writers themselves lay the foundational principles for such an application.

As well as laying down the principles upon which the spiritual sense can be built, the New Testament shows the method of spiritual exegesis in operation. All spiritual exegesis has been completed by the Exegete Christ, and the work of the Church is now to understand what He has achieved. The spirit of the letter is Christ. Therefore we notice that Jesus referred to himself typologically as Jonah (Mt 12: 39), as Solomon (Mt 12: 42), as the Temple (Jn 2: 19) and as the bronze serpent. (Jn 3:14) On the road to Emmaus: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk 24: 27)

He often used the phrase “Son of Man,” most poignantly at his trial (Mk14: 62): “You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” which is a clear reference to the book of Daniel. (7: 13) Jesus explains that the crossing of the Red Sea foreshadows baptism (Jn 3) and that the manna in the desert is a prefigurement of the Eucharist. (Jn 6: 26-58) Perhaps most clear on this subject are his words to the Scribes and Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.” (Jn 5: 39-40)

John Keble in Tract 89, representing so much of the Patristic rediscoveries of the Oxford Movement, makes a most important point regarding Our Lord’s own founding of the mystical interpretation of Scripture. Regarding Jesus’ interpretation of the Mosaic event of the bronze serpent being raised in the desert, he writes:

Had it seemed good to God’s providence, that the discourse of Our Lord to Nicodemus should have been lost, as so many of his divine words were, would not the Christian interpretation of this latter miracle have seemed to many forced, and fanciful, just as that of the former may perhaps seem now? And ought not this single consideration to stop the mouths of all, who have any reverence in their hearts, when they find themselves tempted to join in hasty censure or scorn of such interpretations? For aught they know, they may be scorning or censuring the very lessons of Our Divine Master Himself.

The spiritual interpretation of the evangelists is based upon the cue set by Christ himself. Matthew and John interpret Zechariah’s words (Zech 9:9) as fulfilled by Christ (in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem) as all the evangelists do with so many Old Testament passages. Matthew above all uses the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament, often making comments like, ‘these things happened to fulfil the words of Scripture.’

More than anywhere else, it is in the Pauline writings where both the principles and practice of spiritual exegesis are laid out clearly. While St Paul does not gives us a clearly defined scientific method of spiritual exegesis all those principles and practices that will later unfold in the Tradition are already either implicitly or explicitly present in the Pauline texts. Origen was well aware of St Paul’s importance and that Christian allegory was no invention of the pagans. In a remarkable passage he writes that, “the apostle Paul, ‘teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth,’ taught the Church … how it ought to interpret the books of the Law.” He goes on, “Take note how much Paul’s teaching differs from the plain meaning…What the Jews thought was a crossing of the sea, Paul calls baptism.” It was not only Origen who made this point but also St Augustine who sees St Paul’s understanding and reading of the Scriptures as “a key as to how the rest is to be interpreted.”

On the basis of spiritual understanding, therefore, we find St Paul explaining that the first Adam is a type of Christ, the second Adam. (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15: 21-22, 45-49) In 1 Corinthians (10:1-11), he shows how the events of Exodus refer to baptism and the Eucharist. For instance, he tells us that the people of Israel, “drank from the supernatural rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor 10:4) This is no literary parallelism in the mind of St Paul, rather the relation of the events recorded is the work of God. He explicitly tells us that these things were “written down for us as types.” (1 Cor 10:11)

In Galatians (4:21-31) Paul explains that Sarah and Hagar refer to the two dispensations, Christian and Jewish. He explicitly uses the word “allegory” for the relation of these real historical events to the mystery of Christ and the new covenant. The fact of second order signification is clearly expressed in this teaching in Galatians (4:24) and leads St John Chrysostom to comment: “This means: this history not only reports what appears, but also proclaims other things; and so it is called allegory.” Therefore while the Old Testament events remain real events, they are always in relation to the coming of something much greater, they are in comparison to Jesus Christ, “but a shadow of things to come.” (Col 2:17)

Hebrews, perhaps more than any other single book of Scripture, follows the way of spiritual interpretation. The Law is said to be only a shadow of the true things to come. The mysteries lie under symbolic veils. (10:1)

Hebrews begins with seven quotations from the Psalms and other Old Testament works and then applies them to Christ. (Heb 1:5-14) Again in his Tract 89, the Oxford divine John Keble makes an important point in passing regarding “the True Sanctuary, the True Tabernacle, the True Holy Place” as most certainly leading “us to think of those particulars, at least in the Jewish economy and ritual, as shadowy and typical of things far more real, far more perfect than themselves.”

There are also two foundational texts in Hebrews for the whole tradition of spiritual exegesis: Hebrews (8:5) where the tabernacle of ancient Israel is seen as a “copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.” We see that the causality is from above and not below, final rather than efficient. Hebrews reminds us too of the dialectic between the Testaments as a preparation for the spiritual sense: “For the Law brought nothing to perfection, and on the other hand a bringing in of a better hope through which we draw near to God.” (7:19)

In other writings of the New Testament we see once again the same pattern. In 1 Peter (3:20-21) we read that baptism, which now saves us, corresponds to the salvation of Noah through water (the word for “correspond” here means to fulfil as a type).

There are also many other allusions and examples of spiritual exegesis in the New Testament that are foundational for the whole exegetical Tradition. Here we have only been able to use some of them as illustrative of the well-founded nature of this spiritual sense of Scripture in revelation itself.

The authority for the spiritual sense of Scripture is grounded and guaranteed above all by the fact it is both used and implied throughout the New Testament. For the beginnings of this method of spiritual exegesis one has to go back the very the beginnings of Christianity itself. St Paul is rightly considered to be its first great expositor. According to Origen, the fact that the mystical meaning of Scripture goes beyond the obvious (literal) meaning is a unanimous part of the Apostolic Rule of faith.

Commenting on the whole theological Tradition of the Church, the great German theologian Matthias Scheeben in his Mysteries of Christianity rightly calls the distinction between the literal and the spiritual senses of Scripture a “datum of Tradition.”

The True Meaning of the Spiritual Sense of Scripture

While the New Testament itself, particularly through St Paul, gave the formal unity and common foundation of the spiritual sense, it was to the Tradition’s great elaborators and practitioners of the method that we should observe primarily if we are to follow in this method.{{26}} Origen, St Augustine, St Gregory the Great, St Bede and St Thomas Aquinas therefore play the primary roles in the investigation but always viewed within the context of the entire Tradition, re-invigorated particularly in the 20th century by Cardinal Henri de Lubac.{{27}}

First we need to distinguish the spiritual sense from the literal, showing that it refers to a second order of signification, namely that those things referred to in the text themselves refer to other things. It is not first order signification, namely the things referred to by the text directly (proper literal sense), or by human metaphor (improper literal sense), or by canonical cross-reference (the fuller literal sense).{{28}}

The spiritual sense pertains to the providential significance of the persons, objects, events, images and symbols referred to by the human authors. These significations are not extrinsically or retrospectively applied but rather God himself has established them in his far reaching providence. Words signify things, but when God inspires, the things signified by the words, also signify other important eternal and invisible things.

St Thomas Aquinas writes, “The author of Sacred Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things in themselves.”{{29}} The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture, but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.”{{30}}

This depth of meaning manifests the uniqueness of the Bible: no other book can have this kind of second order signification. In inspiring the letter of Scripture, God was also revealing in types and figures the full meaning of history and salvation in Jesus Christ.

The significations of the spiritual sense pertain to the known truths of faith, morals and glory. The signifying things that God has chosen are attuned to reinforce truths and refute falsehoods. Furthermore, they are objects for contemplation by which God elucidates the many facets of the mysteries of faith.

We are therefore able to establish a common definition of the spiritual sense as: the discernment of the second order significations, intrinsically present in the realities to which the literal sense refers, which God has established to illustrate, amplify and defend the known truths of faith, morals and glory.

This method fits into the common framework of Christian theological understanding. God himself, the Lord of history, can alone guarantee this unique form of signification. Through his special providence and inspiration God ensures that the two great Testaments have a particular relationship to Christ’s coming and saving action.

The spiritual sense needs to be defended against many misconceptions.

Spiritual exegesis is neither an imposed interpretation nor an exercise in theological speculation or pattern-finding. Spiritual understanding is not spiritual in the sense of being subjective, it can neither be reduced to what is now understood by “spiritual reading” nor is it reducible to a reading of Scripture conducted with faith (all Christian readings of Scripture should have this dimension).

The spiritual method is neither a form of Greek or Jewish exegesis imposed on the Bible because of cultural conditioning nor can the most poetically or metaphorically sophisticated text approximate to the divine pattern written by God into history and into Scripture itself as history’s key. This common Christian form of allegory does not come from a distain for the letter of Scripture or history nor is it based on a fancy for Alexandrian styles rather than Antiochene. The standard socio-religious evolution of ideas cannot account for the trans-historical nature of the spiritual sense where unique events are mutually related through the providence of God alone.

The Practice of the Spiritual Sense in Allegory, Tropology and Anagogy

We now need to clarify the common threefold division of spiritual exegesis into allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses. The allegorical sense reveals where things in the Old Law signify things in the New Law; the moral or tropological sense highlights actions and events which are types of what we ought to do; the anagogical sense shows things which signify the realities of eternal glory. Each sense properly refers to the mystery of Christ in a distinct way, one regarding faith, one charity and another hope, answering man’s deepest questions about his own existence before God.{{31}}

When the literal sense is put alongside the three spiritual senses we speak of the Quadriga. Perhaps the best-known summary of this comes from Augustine of Denmark: “The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”{{32}} A good and important example of the different senses relating to the scriptural reference “Jerusalem” is taken from St. John Cassian:

These four previously mentioned figures coalesce, if we desire, in one subject, so that the one and the same Jerusalem can be taken in four senses: historically as the city of the Jews; allegorically as the Church of Christ; anagogically as the heavenly city of God, which is the mother of us all; tropologically, as the soul of man, which is frequently subject to praise or blame from the Lord under this title.

From a close examination of how the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church practiced spiritual exegesis, some aspects of which are explicit and others implicit, it is possible to derive working principles that could be used for spiritual exegesis today. These common principles for the practice of appropriate spiritual exegesis may include:

  1. That consistency with orthodox belief is a condition of validity;
  2. That interpretations are more reliable if they follow the practice manifested in the letter of Scripture or have been used by the Church’s Magisterium, her liturgy, her saints or her theologians;
  3. That authentic spiritual interpretations refer to their correct object which is the mystery of Christ, and not to profane knowledge;
  4. That reliable spiritual interpretations follow the proper sequence of salvation history, for instance, that the realities of the Old Covenant point to realities in the New and not vice-versa;
  5. That not every text carries a spiritual interpretation and that some passages have only a literal sense (for instance, when a New Testament passage refers directly to final glory there can be no further spiritual sense);
  6. That a certain consistency should be sought in the signification of standard spiritual indicators (for instance, when a reference to the “rock” refers to Christ in one passage it may perhaps be applied profitably to the same subject when recurring elsewhere provided all the other rules are applied).


Joseph Ratzinger describes the spiritual method as looking at the biblical texts, “in the light of the total movement of history and in light of history’s central event, Jesus Christ.”{{33}} In the providential ordering of events described in the Scriptures, God himself was writing a divine description of his Son and of those realities that pertain to him. This is just as Jesus had taught during his life on earth, “He explained to them the passages throughout the Scriptures that were about himself.” (Lk 24:27)

With the superseding of the Old Covenant the books of the Old Testament cease to be applicable in the literal sense alone. They are re-interpreted spiritually in Christ. As the Fathers testify, these sacred writings do not fall by the wayside but become part of the one Gospel bearing witness to Christ and his sacred doctrine.

A neglect of this sense of Scripture constituted a disservice to the true and full interpretation of the Bible and ultimately to the whole theological enterprise of the Church. Any true Catholic hermeneutic cannot ignore the Quadriga. The fact that it is possible to draw common coherent principles from Scripture and the Tradition regarding the meaning and practice of the spiritual sense itself bears witness to the objective validity of the method.

Furthermore, the evident fruitfulness of spiritual interpretation in historical theology calls for its rediscovery and application at the beginning of the third Christian millennium.

If Pope Benedict XVI is right then the way forward for modern exegesis is in upholding history and making authentic historical investigation while at the same time perceiving the theological import of that same history revealed through the providence of God. In other words, Catholic exegetes and theologians need to pursue both the precise and honest literal sense of Scripture as well as the three spiritual senses.

Following the publication of Verbum Domini it appears that the hard work and profound insights of the theologian Joseph Ratzinger are becoming, through the providence of God, the platform for the reform and renewal of the Church’s whole theological mission beyond the era of hermeneutical scepticism and mere historical criticism.

You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me. (Jn 5: 39-40)

Fr Marcus Holden is parish priest of Ramsgate and Minster in the Archdiocese of Southwark. He is co-founder of the Evangelium project which produces resources for evangelisation and catechesis. He is a lecturer and course tutor for the Maryvale Masters Programme in Catholic Apologetics and a founder of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Great Britain. Fr Holden was the keynote speaker at the ACCC 2011 Annual Conference.

[[1]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xxiii, “I have merely tried to go beyond purely historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible”. Doubleday 2007.[[1]]

[[2]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xvi. Doubleday 2007.[[2]]

[[3]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xii. Doubleday 2007.[[3]]

[[4]] Verbum Domini (2010), par. 35[[4]]

[[5]] Ratzinger, Car. J. Ratzinger, Card. J. Preface of 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.[[5]]

[[6]] Ratzinger, J. On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Todayin Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R, J. Eerdmans 1989. p17. He calls the historical method to a humble self-limitation, by which it can mark out its own proper space.[[6]]

[[7]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xvii, Doubleday 2007.[[7]]

[[8]] Ratzinger, J. Preface of 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, p9-10.[[8]]

[[9]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xxi, Doubleday 2007.[[9]]

[[10]] Ratzinger, J. On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today, in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R, J. Eerdmans 1989. p16.[[10]]

[[11]] Cardinal Henri de Lubac a great colleague and ally of Joseph Ratzinger in the turbulent period after the Second Vatican Council, made a very similar comment about modern biblical critics: “they are primarily specialists, and their function has become very necessary and very important during the last few centuries. They must realise (and this realisation is something they have occasionally lacked) that their very specialisation imposes limitations on them; that their “science” thus cannot be the whole of scriptural science; but they are not required, in their role as scientific exegetes, to give us the whole of scriptural science; and they should not even aspire to do so” (Scripture in the Tradition, Herder & Herder, ed 2000, French edition 1967, p58 footnote 9).[[11]]

[[12]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xviii, Doubleday 2007.[[12]]

[[13]] Ratzinger sees that “Canonical exegesis”, developed amongst other by the protestant scholar Brevard Childs, which reads “the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole” (Jesus of Nazareth xix) as a step towards a truly theological approach.[[13]]

[[14]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, xix, Doubleday 2007.[[14]]

[[15]] Pope Benedict XVI, Papal Audience on St Jerome, 7th November 2007.[[15]]

[[16]] Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (2010), par. 34[[16]]

[[17]] Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (2010), par. 37. Pope Benedict makes his own the key principles of Dei Verbum which ought to govern the work of every exegete: 1) the text must be interpreted with attention to the unity of the whole of Scripture; nowadays this is called canonical exegesis; 2) account is be taken of the living Tradition of the whole Church; and, finally, 3) respect must be shown for the analogy of faith.[[17]]

[[18]] Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (2010), par. 29[[18]]

[[19]] According to Origen, the fact that the spiritual meaning of Scripture goes beyond the obvious (literal) meaning is a unanimous part of the Apostolic Rule of faith, de Principiis, I, 8. And St Augustine says, “This form of understanding that comes to us from the Apostles”, City of God, XV, c. 2 (commenting on Gal 4:24).[[19]]

[[20]] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IIIb, 2.[[20]]

[[21]] Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R, J. Eerdmans 1989, 1-23[[21]]

[[22]] The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a magisterial endorsement: “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church” (par. 115). Joseph Ratzinger, in his preface to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, speaks approvingly of “new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture” (IIIb, 2). For a renewal of exegesis he speaks of the need “to introduce into the discussion the great proposals of patristic and medieval thought” (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R, J. Eerdmans 1989, 1-23).[[22]]

[[23]] Pope Benedict XVI, Papal Audience on Origen, 25th April 2007.[[23]]

[[24]] Ratzinger, J. Jesus of Nazareth, p246, Doubleday 2007.[[24]]

[[25]] Joseph Ratzinger in his preface to the 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.[[25]]

[[26]] Joseph Ratzinger in his preface to the 2002 Pontifical Biblical Commission Document The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, writes, “The Fathers of the Church created nothing new when they gave a Christological interpretation to the Old Testament; they only systematised what they themselves had already discovered in the New Testament”.[[26]]

[[27]] Henri de Lubac, above all others in the modern age, has written so much and understood so deeply the themes and insights behind the spiritual understanding of Scripture. During the war we are told that de Lubac carried a sack filled with note-cards from one dwelling place to another, expanding it from time to time with jottings on his readings. The final result of this was his monumental four-volume work, Medieval Exegesis, that spearheaded something of a revival for the spiritual sense.[[27]]

[[28]] On this account St. Thomas writes, “What is special here is that the things meant by the words also themselves mean something” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 10.[[28]]

[[29]] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 10. He also writes in the same place, quoting from St. Gregory the Great, that Sacred Scripture “by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.[[29]]

[[30]] Catechism of the Catholic Church 117.[[30]]

[[31]] The Tradition is summed up nicely by Nicholas of Lyra: “The mystic or spiritual sense…is in general threefold; since if the things signified by the words are referred to as to signify the things that are to be believed in the New Law, this amounts to the allegorical sense; if they are referred to as to signify things to be done by us, this is the moral or tropological sense; and if they are referred to so as to signify things that are to be hoped for in the beatitude to come this is the anagogical sense” (Nicholas of Lyra, quoted in De Lubac, H. Medieval Exegesis, vol 2, T&T Clarke 2000, p37).[[31]]

[[32]] Catechism of the Catholic Church 118. Also in the Tradition we find a common comparison between the fourfold sense of Scripture and a great building, which Henri de Lubac called the “edifice of all Christian thought” (De Lubac, H. Theological Fragments, Ignatius Press, 1984, p117). The foundation is the literal sense which relates history, the walls and shape of the whole construction are established by allegory. The interior, the decoration and the beauty of the building are brought about through tropology, while the roof, which is the end point and the finishing touch of the construction, is added through anagogy.[[32]]

[[33]] Ratzinger, J. Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible and the Church, ed. Neuhaus, R, J. Eerdmans 1989, p 20.[[33]]