Thursday, August 25, 2005

Prejean's homegrown exegesis

Jason Engwer and I have been debating with Jonathan Prejean over the grammatico-historical method. One of his incessant demands is that we justify our own appeal to the GHM. Up to a point, there is nothing wrong with such a demand, and, in fact, both Jason and I have argued for our position.

However, as Jason explained early in the debate, it is unnecessary to mount a separate and independent argument for your own position if that is, or ought to be, a point of common ground between you and your opponent.

One of the persistent problems in our debate with Prejean is his failure to abide by the standards of his own denomination. He has simply gone into business for himself.

Back in 1993, the PCB issued The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. You can find this document posted at the Vatican’s own website, along with approving remarks by the late JP2 and the now Benedict XVI.

Here are some pertinent excerpts from that document:


A. Historical-Critical Method

The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts. Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the "word of God in human language," has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them. Because of this, its proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.

At the different stages of their production, the texts of the Bible were addressed to various categories of hearers or readers living in different places and different times.


There is no necessity, therefore, for Jason or me to make our own case for the validity of the GHM when debating a devout Catholic.

Indeed, the above statement goes even further than the GHM in its espousal of Bible criticism.

I myself disagree with this document’s critical assumptions. But that’s beside point. I’m free to pick-and-choose what I agree with because I’m not a member of the communion which issued these guidelines. But Prejean does not enjoy the same latitude.

In addition, Prejean has been highly critical of what he takes to be the relationship between the GHM and phenomenonology. However, the same document, after reviewing the approach of Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, says the following:


Hence the absolute necessity of a hermeneutical theory which allows for the incorporation of the methods of literary and historical criticism within a broader model of interpretation. It is a question of overcoming the distance between the time of the authors and first addressees of the biblical texts, and our own contemporary age, and of doing so in a way that permits a correct actualization of the Scriptural message so that the Christian life of faith may find nourishment.

This meaning is expressed in the text. To avoid, then, purely subjective readings, an interpretation valid for contemporary times will be founded on the study of the text, and such an interpretation will constantly submit its presuppositions to verification by the text.


Again, the question is not whether I myself agree with the details of Franco-German phenomenology. Rather, the question is whether Prejean is in any position to attribute that position to adherents of the GHM, and then deny its legitimacy when his own communion affirms its legitimacy.

The remaining question is whether an alternative method like allegorical exegesis is acceptable as well.


Ancient exegesis, which obviously could not take into account modern scientific requirements, attributed to every text of Scripture several levels of meaning. The most prevalent distinction was that between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. Medieval exegesis distinguished within the spiritual sense three different aspects…

It is not only legitimate, it is also absolutely necessary to seek to define the precise meaning of texts as produced by their authors—what is called the "literal" meaning. St. Thomas Aquinas had already affirmed the fundamental importance of this sense (S. Th. I, q. 1,a. 10, ad 1).

The literal sense of Scripture is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context. The principal task of exegesis is to carry out this analysis, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view to defining the literal sense of the biblical texts with the greatest possible accuracy (cf "Divino Afflante Spiritu: Ench. Bibl.," 550). To this end, the study of ancient literary genres is particularly necessary (ibid. 560).

Modern attempts at actualization should keep in mind both changes in ways of thinking and the progress made in interpretative method.

Actualization presupposes a correct exegesis of the text, part of which is the determining of its Persons engaged in the work of actualization who do not themselves have training in exegetical procedures should have recourse to good introductions to Scripture, this will ensure that their interpretation proceeds in the right direction.

The most sure and promising method for arriving at a successful actualization is the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture, especially in the case of the texts of the Old Testament which have been reread in the Old Testament itself…


Notice here that the document finds warrant for the GHM in the intertextual exegesis of Scripture itself, as I myself have argued.

Notice, too, the implicit criticism of allegorical exegesis as a well-meaning, but obsolete convention.

Now, since the document in question is a Catholic document, Prejean can find some statements supportive of some elements of his own position, just as I can find statements with which I disagree.

But that, again, is not the point. The point is the Prejean is being very selective and one-sided in his appeal to Catholic hermeneutics—at times even opposing the theory and practice of his own church.

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