Wednesday, August 08, 2007

An Interpretatiion of Benedict XVI's "Jesus of Nazareth:" "The Hermeneutic of Continuity"

An Interpretation of Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth:” “The Hermeneutic of Continuity”

The Immediate Question: Is the real Jesus given to us in the Gospel texts, or is there a split between the real-life historical Jesus and the Jesus of the faith of the disciples after the Resurrection which was superimposed on the Gospel texts at a later date? Put simply, is there a difference between Jesus of Nazareth as a concrete historical individual from a particular place at a particular time, and Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16, 16)? At stake: the realism of Christian faith. Is Christian faith about an historical reality, a God-man, or is it about myth?

A More Immediate Question: Why has the Second Vatican Council not been read, accepted or understood? Put more succinctly, which is the interpretive key to understanding the Council, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture” [consult footnote #1] or the “hermeneutic of continuity? The same point is at stake: was the Second Vatican Council a series of parliamentary "compromise" documents, or the authoritative teaching on Christian faith?

I offer Benedicts talk to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005 to set it up:

“No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult, even without wishing to apply to what occurred in these years the description that St Basil, the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church's situation after the Council of Nicea: he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things: "The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith..." (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX, 77; PG 32, 213 A; SCh 17 ff., p. 524).
We do not want to apply precisely this dramatic description to the situation of the post-conciliar period, yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless reflected in it. The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?
Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.
On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.
The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.
These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council's deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.
In a word: it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.[1] The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.”

The Most Critical Question for Benedict-Ratzinger: How can the contingency of history and the absoluteness of Hellenic metaphysics be compatible? The young Joseph Ratzinger found this to be the key question of theological Germany at the beginning (1953) of his studies and, in effect, has spent his intellectual career with this question at root. In the “forward” to the American edition of his “habilitation” thesis on “The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure” of 1954 on, he wrote:

“When I began the preparatory work fore this study in the fall of 1953, one of the questions which stood in the foreground of concern within German-speaking, Catholic theological circles was the question of the relation of salvation-history to metaphysics. This was a problem which arose above all from contacts with Protestant theology which, since the time of Luther, has tended to see in metaphysic thought a departure from the specific claim of the Christian faith which directs man not simply to the Eternal but to the God who acts in time and history. Here questions of quite diverse character and of different orders arose. How can that which has taken place historically become present? How can the unique and unrepeatable have a universal significance? But then, on the other hand: Has not the ‘Hellenization’ of Christianity, which attempted to overcome the scandal of the particular by a blending of faith and metaphysics, led to a development in a false direction? Has it not created a static style of thought which cannot do justice to the dynamism of the biblical style?
“These questions had a strong influence on me, and I wanted to make a contribution toward answering them. In the light of the accepted tradition of German theology, it was self-evident to me that this could not be done in an a priori way. Rather, it could take place only in dialogue with that very theological tradition which was being called into question. Only on the basis of this type of study could any systematic formulation take place. I have attempted to give a tentative sketch of such a formulation in my book Einfuhrung in das Christendom which appeared in 1968. Since I had devoted my first study to Augustine, and thus had become somewhat familiar with the world of the Fathers, it seemed natural now to approach the Middle Ages. For the questions with which I was concerned, Bonaventure was naturally a more likely subject for study than Aquinas. Thus, a partner was found for the discussion. The questions which I hoped to direct to this partner were sketched in general terms in the concepts of revelation – history – metaphysics[2] (underline mine).

The Meaning of Revelation and Faith in Bonaventure and the Fathers of the Church as the Key to the Hermeneutic of Continuity and Reform?

For the present historical moment of Catholic theology of Revelation and Faith, what Ratzinger discovered was revolutionary and gave off an aroma of modernism – the “summation of heresy” that had been roundly condemned by the Magisterium under Pius X. In his autobiography “Milestones,” he wrote:

“I had ascertained that in Bonaventure (as well as in theologians of the thirteenth century) there was nothing corresponding to our conception of `revelation,’ by which we are normally in the habit of referring to all the revealed contents of the faith: it has even become a part of linguistic usage to refer to Sacred Scripture simply as `revelation.’ Such an identification would have been unthinkable in the language of the High Middle Ages. Here, `revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act. The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of `revelation.’ Where there is no one to perceive `revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it. These insights, gained through my reading of Bonaventure, were later on very important for me at the time of the conciliar discussion on revelation, Scripture, and tradition. Because, if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it. This in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down. And this again means that there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura (`by Scripture alone’), because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given.”[3]

Ratzinger goes on to disclose that Michael Schmaus “did not like the result of my analyses.”[4] He had “heard annoying rumors from some in Freising concerning the modernity of my theology [and] saw in these theses a rendering that was not faithful to Bonaventure’s thought (however, to this day I still affirm the contrary, but rather a dangerous modernism that had to lead to the subjectivization of the concept of revelation.”[5]

What does the insight “the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of ‘revelation’" mean?

It means that Revelation – that is the Person of Jesus Christ Who is the Word of the Father – demands that the believing person be an ontological person whole (not just consciousness as in Enlightenment thought or a faculty of intellect and will as in neo-scholasticism) who becomes “like” the revealing Person in a historical way. In radio talks given in the winter of 1969-70, Ratzinger said: “faith is not a diluted form of natural science, an ancient or medieval preparatory stage that must vanish when the real thing turns up, but is something essentially different. It is not provisional knowledge, although we do use the word in this sense also when we say, for example, ‘I believe that is so.’ In such a case ‘believing’ means ‘being of the opinion.’ But when we say, ‘I believe you,’ the word acquires quite another meaning. It means the same as, ‘I trust you,’ or even as much as , ‘I rely upon you.’ The you, in which I put reliance, provides me with a certainty that is different from but no less than the certainty that comes from calculation and experiment. And it is thus that the word is used in the Christian Credo. The basic form of Christian faith is not: I believe something, but I believe you. Faith is a disclosure of reality that is granted only to him who trusts, loves, and acts as a human being; and as such it is not a derivative of knowledge, but is sui generic, like knowledge, although it is indeed more basic and more central to our authentically human nature than knowledge is.”[6]

Basically, faith means that I make a gift of myself to the revealer. I trust. I surrender myself. And in the case of the Person of Christ Who reveals Himself to be one with the Father, who is always being found in relation as prayer to the Father, to be in a dialogue of listening and talking with Him who reveals Himself to be dialogue and trust towards the Father, my “I” takes on the same ontological shape as the “I” of Christ Who reveals Himself to be nothing without the Father, and therefore to be pure relation to the Father. In a word, the believing “I” and the revealing “I” become alike, if not identical in the act of self-transcendence. Which means that the believer begins to have the same consciousness as Christ because he has the same sentiments.
Benedict’s theological epistemology kicks in heavy here with the “I” of the believer becoming prayer as Christ is Incarnate Word spoken by and with the Father. He is most clear with the presentation of the Samaritan woman having Christ reveal Himself as Messiah because of her self-giving confessions to Him that she, indeed, had no husband.[7] As he remarked in “Behold the Pierced One:”

“We say that prayer was the central act of the person of Jesus and, indeed, that this person is constituted by the act of prayer, of unbroken communication with the one he calls ‘Father.’ If this is the case, it is only possible really to understand this person by entering into this act of prayer, by participating in it. This is suggested by Jesus’ saying that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6, 44). Where there is no Father, there is no Son. Where there is no relationship with God, there can be no understanding of him who, in his innermost self, is nothing but relationship with God, the Father… Therefore a participation in the mind of Jesus, i.e., in his prayer, which… is an act of love, of self-giving and self-expropriation to men, is not some kind of pious supplement to reading the Gospels, adding nothing to knowledge of him or even being an obstacle to the rigorous purity of critical knowing. On the contrary, it is the basic precondition if real understanding, in the sense of modern hermeneutics – i.e., the entering-in to the same time and the same meaning – is to take place.”[8]

Notice the last sentence concerning modern hermeneutics and “the entering-in to the same time and the same meaning.” This is the question of being able “to see” the “I” of Jesus Christ now as the meaning of Sacred Scripture then. In a word, the problem with being able to do hermeneutics, i.e. interpretation, as to whether this historical man Jesus of Nazareth is really the Christ, Son of the living God, depends on whether Christ, the Son of the living God can be experienced by me, the believer, now and therefore I can “see” Him in the scenes of the Gospel as they are historically depicted. If there is no divine Person whom I can experience now by giving myself in prayer to Him, and to the Father, then to live realism, I must subtract all the references to miracles and transcendent talk and find the causes and ways that these utterances could come about and be inserted in these texts. It is the Kantian split between the a posteriori and the a priori. If there is a prejudice that the absolute cannot exist in the contingent, that there can be no compatibility between metaphysics and history, then we are in a hermeneutic of discontinuity.

Let me offer one of the major examples of the hermeneutic of discontinuity that has the Hellenization of Christology of the Fathers and the first councils of the Church, and the Reformation (Luther) that saw this metaphysical Hellenization as stultifying the dynamic of lived Christian faith. We have been living with the discontinuity for 400 years. In a word, Jesus Christ, in Catholic theology, has been understood as an “exception” to man. He is God, and is to be understood from the side of God. Man has been understood “from below” as an “individual substance of a rational nature” to whose life the life of Christ is exceptional. We find this in the absence of the universal call to holiness for all lay Christians in preference to the call of the few to the religious life of the vows and leaving the world.

The Hermeneutic of Continuity: To Be = To Be in Relation
The solution to the discontinuity of the metaphysics of one Person with two natures, and the dynamics of the act of self gift to the Cross, is in the understanding of the person as relational being: to be = to be in relation. Then-Ratzinger says: “For we have found that the being of Christ (‘incarnation’ theology!) is actualitas, stepping beyond and out of oneself, the exodus of departure from self [theology of the Cross]; it is not a being that rests in itself, but the act of being sent, of being son, of serving. Conversely, this ‘doing’ is not just ‘doing’ but ‘being;’ it reaches down into the depths of being and coincides with it. This being is exodus, transformation. So at this point a properly understood theology of being and of the incarnation must pass over into the theology of the cross and become one with it; conversely, a theology of the cross that gives its full measure must pass over into the theology of the Son and of being.”

The same situation applies to the dichotomy of Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus, the Son of the living God. The key to grasping that they are the same “I” is the prayerful activity of the believing reader of Scripture.

[1] Tracey Rowland, “Culture and the Thomist Tradition After Vatican II,” Routledge (2003): “As a preliminary point, it should be noted that all commentators agree that Gaudium et spes was a compromise document – that it is the outcome of quite intense debates about the relationship between nature and grace and in particular the tension between the incarnational and eschatological dimensions of Catholic theology. Walter Kasper expresses the problem in concrete from when he ways that there remains within the text a ‘certain lack of clarity with respect to the relationship between man’s character as God’s image according to Genesis 1, 26 and that of Jesus Christ according to Colossians 1, 15. In his account of the history of the document‘s drafting, Charles Moeller stated that in the last two stages of the drafting process a decision was taken that a ‘balance must be struck between the opposing tendencies,’ and as a consequence the document acquired a ‘dialectical character with multiple contrasts.’ In effect, this means that Gaudium et spes cannot read without an overarching theological framework in which the contrasts can be reconciled. However, no such framework was offered by the Conciliar fathers and as a consequence the document became the subject of a riot of interpretations, especially by those plain persons who lacked a training in theology and philosophy, as well as many clergy and religious in positions of authority within the Church’s institutions… Not only was the substance of the document the result of theological compromise, but its form has been described as , inter alia, an ‘innovation in genre’ (Aidan Nichols), ‘a novelty whose structure is unprecedented in the history of the councils’ (Walter Kasper) and ‘an approach which treats Christ more as Omega than as Alpha (Edouard Hamel)…. The form of the document also bears evidence of a series of compromises…”
[2] J. Ratzinger, “The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure,” Franciscan Herald Press (1989) xi-xii.
[3] J. Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 Ignatius 107-109.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid (I reworked the translation so that it was more idiomatic English)
[6] J. Ratzinger, “Faith and the Future,” Franciscan Herald Press (1971) 19-20.
[7] J. Ratzinger, “Principles of Catholic Theology,” Ignatius (1987) 353-355.
[8] J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignatius (1986) 26.

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