Exegesis as Theology, Theology as Exegesis

Posted by Dr. Michael Barber on 09.01.11

One of the most jaw-dropping sections in Pope Benedict’s recent letter, Verbum Domini, states the following:

“where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and conversely, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation” (Verbum Domini, no. 35).
In a sense, here Pope Benedict is reiterating what the Second Vatican Council taught, namely, “the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology” (Dei Verbum, 24).

In fact, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger said that “dogma is by definition nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture” (“Crisis in Catechesis,” Canadian Catholic Review, 7 (1983): 8/178. Thus he explained, “the Bible becomes the model of all theology” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987], 321).

But in some ways Benedict’s vision in Verbum Domini goes even further beyond these statements. For Benedict exegesis must be theology and theology must be “essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture”.

The latter line has especially hit me hard. Can Catholic theologians really describe their work as “essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture”? This is more than merely proof-texting; theology must be exegetical.

This is a real challenge for Catholic theologians—not just Scripture scholars. To illustrate this, consider theological reflection on “invincible ignorance.” How often have you seen such a discussion emerge from biblical texts? It seems to me that Paul’s teaching in Romans 2 would be a fruitful place to begin:

All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

But how many theological textbooks examining the question of “invincible ignorance” offer an exegesis of this passage—not a proof-text, but a truly rigorous examination of the meaning of this passage and its possible relevance?

Seems we have a long way to go before we realize the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

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